WASHINGTON – This is America, on the installment plan.

For 177 days now, the longest period in 14 years, the U.S. government has operated without a budget. Congress is mired in a spending fight, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over what to cut from the budget and by how much. Each party sees its soul at stake.

Absent an agreement to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year in September, Congress has passed six short-term stopgap measures, one after another. The current one lasts until April 8.

The short-term extensions have kept the lights on. But the uncertainty over whether the two sides will eventually reach a long-term budget deal has done its own damage, producing waste and inefficiency as a massive federal bureaucracy tries to live paycheck to paycheck.

Some agencies have had to halt new projects in midstream, because the funds they expected have not arrived. In California, there is a new federal prison with 160 staff and no inmates. The government has no money to open it.

In other cases, managers have become more stingy with the money they still have — worried that their funding might stop in a shutdown or shrink when a new budget is passed.

Confusion over the budget has also let unwanted projects live on.

The government is spending $1.4 million a day on a moon rocket that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has already canceled. With the budget in disarray, nobody has turned off the spigot.

In Washington, federal workers worry that their jobs will end, lose sleep and fight with their spouses about money. This unease strikes at two pillars of their identity: that their work is steady, and that it is valued by their leaders and their country.

Republicans who urge deep cuts acknowledge that they will be painful for those who will lose their jobs or see their agencies pared down, but they argue that there are larger things at stake, such as bringing down the nation’s enormous debt.

“People are wanting more cuts, not fewer cuts. They don’t believe that we maybe went far enough,” even with deep reductions to the budget proposed so far, said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., one of 87 GOP freshmen elected last fall on promises to rein in federal spending.

Huizenga said it is crucial to come out of this budget fight with substantial cuts. “If we can’t do what we say we’re going to do on some of these small things, how are they going to trust us?” he asked.

At this point, federal agencies are braced for the coming cuts. The hard part is the waiting while Congress tries to make up its mind. As Republicans and Democrats dither, official Washington is stuck in limbo, moving ahead, awkwardly, a few weeks at a time.