U.S. President Barack Obama's budget is unpacked by aides of the Senate Buget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Barack Obama's budget is unpacked by aides of the Senate Buget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: OK, so the good news is the federal government is all set for another three weeks. The bad news is that in about two and a half weeks we're going to be going through the whole 'will the government shut down or won't it, and if it does, whose fault will it be?' debate.

Today the Senate passed a bill to keep things running until the 8th of April. For those keeping track, that's the sixth temporary budget so far this fiscal year. Opening the purse strings for just weeks at a time, Congress has set spending levels that were originally designed for last fiscal year's budget, the one that started back in the fall of 2009.

And you know what, piecemeal payouts are actually changing the way the government does business. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: Halfway through the 2011 fiscal year, temporary spending bills have become the federal government's new normal.

Paul Light: It's kind of like throwing a bucket of cold molasses on the executive branch.

Paul Light is government professor at New York University.

Light: It's very destabilizing to the actual execution of the laws.

Without permission to sign contracts or buy supplies beyond a few weeks into the future, Light says government agencies have had to make due with less money and fewer employees.

Light: You have fewer oil rigs being inspected, fewer poultry plants being inspected. Less regulation coming out of the SEC.

Spending problems are especially acute at the Pentagon. The military got authority to give employees a 1.4 percent pay increase this year -- and did so -- but has yet to get the extra money.

Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says that's created a $3.5 billion gap.

Todd Harrison: They're having to try to pull money from other accounts and delay things wherever they can, delay paying bills to help make up some of that difference.

Budget cutting advocates in Congress say taxpayers are better off with the government sticking to last year's spending levels. Harrison isn't so sure.

Harrison: We're saving money, but at a cost. The cost is that we're not spending what we are spending as efficiently as we could.

For example, he says, the Navy had hoped to build another new submarine this year, taking advantage of workers and suppliers already assembling a submarine in Virginia. But the budget delay put the kibosh on those efficiencies.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.