With budget cuts in the headlines and an election just around the corner, contractors once again face the threat of reduced funding for their contracts. The sequestration process established in the Budget Control Act of 2011 will impose automatic across-the-board spending cuts of more than $100 billion per year for each of the next ten years, significantly impacting contract expenditures by the Department of Defense and other agencies. As agencies look for ways to pare down their spending, contractors may find themselves hearing that there is not enough money to go around. Fortunately, contractors can take comfort in the fact that a lack of funding does not normally excuse the government’s payment obligations.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, No. 11-551 (U.S. June 18, 2012) addresses this subject. The government sought to avoid its contractual promise to pay the full amount of “contract support costs” to Indian tribes that contracted with the Department of the Interior to provide federally-funded services such as education, health services, and law enforcement. The contracts with the tribes were authorized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which requires the Secretary of the Interior to pay the full amount of a tribe’s contract support costs (e.g. auditing costs, workers’ compensation insurance, and start-up costs) subject to the availability of appropriations. But if the contract support costs are not paid, the tribal contractors can pursue money damages under the Contract Disputes Act and obtain payment through the Judgment Fund, which does not have any fiscal year limitations and is not subject to Congressional appropriations.