The federal government ministries have received mail. And if the sender’s name is Werner Gatzer, then the others already know: somehow the money is running out. However, the letter that the Budget Secretary has now sent to his colleagues in the other houses is more than just the usual request to save. Gatzer has imposed a far-reaching budget freeze in order to prevent additional damage to the state budget following the Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling on the debt brake. The letter is both a word of power and an expression of the helplessness in the Ministry of Finance: Nobody can yet say what to do next.

For Werner Gatzer, the coalition’s financial crisis after the Karlsruhe ruling is a bitter punchline. He has been in office for 18 years and is currently by far the longest-serving State Secretary in the federal government. Nobody understands the federal budget as well as he does, nobody knows as many tricks and tricks to make up a few more euros. And of all things, this creativity has now become his downfall.

Gatzer has served ministers from three parties, survived the financial crisis with Peer Steinbrück (SPD) and reached black zero with Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU). With Olaf Scholz (SPD) he fought the economic consequences of the Corona crisis and with Christian Lindner he once again had a balanced budget in mind – not least thanks to the special funds for electricity price brakes (Doppelwumms) and the climate-friendly modernization of the economy. Of all things, the two pots are now in the fire.

What exactly does a budget secretary actually do? “There are around 20,000 employees in the federal government,” Gatzer once said. “Of these, 19,800 want to spend money and 200 want to save.” These 200 are all in the budget department of the Federal Ministry of Finance. And Gatzer is their boss, the State Secretary. This is the normal case.

But now there is a state of emergency. Money is tight, and so is time.

When Gatzer came to the budget department of the Ministry of Finance, the then State Secretary Manfred Overhaus actually didn’t want him. Overhaus was an economist, Gatzer a lawyer. “Lawyers were seen as having concerns,” Gatzer once said. It is an irony of this story that Gatzer, of all people, apparently had too few concerns about the reallocation of credit authorizations from the Corona crisis in favor of the Climate Transformation Fund (KTF).

In 2005, Steinbrück appointed him State Secretary for Budget. A few months earlier, Overhaus, who had held the office for ten years and eight months, had resigned. In his time, Overhaus was considered the eternal Secretary of State. Gatzer has long been the eternal State Secretary. He only has to hold out for a few more months before he would overtake Otto Schlecht, who was the top official in the Ministry of Economic Affairs for 18 years, three months and 22 days. On June 22, 2024, as Der Spiegel has calculated, Gatzer would be the State Secretary with the longest term in office in the history of the Federal Republic. He could just manage that before he reaches retirement age in November 2024.

Inside a government, the budget secretary is the ghost who always says no. Gatzer once put it this way: “The other departments think everything they do makes sense. We sometimes have doubts.” The majority of a budget, around 80 percent, is fixed in advance anyway: personnel expenses, real estate and countless other fixed items. For the rest, the budget secretary’s job mostly consists of fending off the wishes of colleagues from other ministries. Perhaps no one has experienced this as intensively this year as Family Minister Lisa Paus and her employees in the struggle for basic child welfare. Gatzer’s old motto applied here: “We look at programs and check whether the money really leads to the desired goal.”

If Gatzer’s boss Christian Lindner gets his way, then his state secretary will have hard times ahead – and even more so the ministers of the other departments. Lindner’s motto is to make more effective policies with less money. In friendly terms, this means: save intelligently. In a less friendly way it means: paint, paint, paint.

Gatzer’s predecessor Overhaus was feared; he was considered bossy and arrogant. He is said to have overheated rooms and not offered drinks in order to wear down his negotiating partners. Former government spokesman Peter Hausmann once complained that Overhaus would “take away the subsidy for his prosthesis from a one-armed violinist in the pedestrian zone.” The former CSU regional group leader Michael Glos described the negotiations with Overhaus as follows: “Nobody has asked him yet, so he has already said no.”

Werner Gatzer is considered friendlier. The Cologne tongue and his generally cheerful nature help. Among other things, Gatzer is a passionate carnivalist. When it comes to tough financial policy, however, he is in no way inferior to his predecessor, even if he puts it smoothly and with subtle humor: “Everyone is treated decently here,” he once said about his conduct of negotiations. “The way he deserves it.” Many years ago, after negotiations with Gatzer, a state secretary from the Ministry of Health is said to have hit a sandbag to relieve himself. Does Gatzer approve a collective order of sandbags for all ministries despite the budget freeze?

Gatzer learned his trade alongside colleagues who always had catalogs from the mail order companies Otto and Neckermann with them during budget negotiations. In it, they checked the prices for ballpoint pens, transparent envelopes or loose-leaf binders and, on this basis, corrected the departments’ budget estimates downwards. It was not least Gatzer who later modernized this small-scale approach.

A certain long-suffering nature suits Gatzer as a fan of 1. FC Köln as well as as a state secretary. But his fuse is not endless either, as we saw a few months ago at an appointment with journalists, in which Gatzer gave vent to his anger about the country’s ever-increasing demands for refugee aid with surprising clarity for his standards.

Werner Gatzer, who has been in the SPD for 41 years, is considered an extremely rare example of a man who is able to combine politically independent thinking and the non-partisan loyalty of a civil servant in one person. When he leaves at the end of next year, Gatzer, a father of four children, will remain in the position of chairman of the supervisory board at Deutsche Bahn alongside his family until 2025. From their headquarters at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin you can get a good look into the Ministry of Finance from above. Werner Gatzer could notice if his successor messes up.