The Thinker

Spoiling for a government shutdown

Here inside Club Feb (the federal government) the incessant question is “Will the government shut down on March 5th?” That’s the date when, unless a new continuing resolution is passed or the Senate and House can agree to an omnibus spending bill acceptable to the president, much of the federal government “shuts down”. In that event, as a federal employee who is likely to be deemed non-essential, I will most likely go home having no idea when I might come back to work.

I suspect this won’t bother much of America, since federal employees have for the most part not been touched by the recession that is still impacting the country. (The same cannot be said for state and local workers.) The thinking will probably be something like, “Well, good. They should feel what the rest of us are going through.”

Maybe we feds will, or maybe we won’t. Fifteen years ago when the last shutdown occurred, non-essential employees eventually received back pay for their furloughed status. This is considered less likely this time. So perhaps I should use my furlough time to stand in line at the unemployment office. At least I would be using my time to generate some income.

For people like me, a shutdown is likely to be an inconvenience and maybe a moderate financial hit. My family has plenty of savings that should ride us through this time. It would take a few months being furloughed for us to feel a lot of pain, although I am sure I will feel more anxiety the longer it goes on. My wife remains employed in the private sector, albeit for considerably less than my salary, so we will have some income. While it lasts, I will be financially prudent and husband cash. I won’t be paying anything on my mortgage beyond what the credit union demands. I won’t be taking any vacations. I may boycott restaurants for a while and defer most optional spending. If I do any extra spending it will be for paint. Paint is cheap and there are always rooms that need repainting.

For many other federal employees down the GS ladder, a furlough of any duration will hurt. Contrary to the public perception, government jobs do not come with lavish salaries. The principle benefit of federal employment is consistency: checks are electronically deposited every two weeks like clockwork. Many federal employees live paycheck to paycheck like their private sector friends. They will be hurting if a shutdown lasts more than a few weeks.

Ironically, the people the shutdown will hurt the most will be those not in the public sector. As I mentioned over eight years ago, the number of federal employees understates the true federal employment picture because it conveniently ignores contractors. The employers of these contractors may dole out salary while their contracts are suspended, or may not. In my building, those likely to go without pay include cafeteria workers, janitors, the housekeeping staff, the grounds crews and a fair portion of the security force. They, of course, are the most visible of those directly affected. Contractors working off site will also be affected. Some with national security contracts and other “essential” contractors will keep humming along. All these affected people will likely be spending less money. Restaurants such as Starbucks in D.C. will likely be impacted, and these reduced sales will affect what they order from suppliers. So there will doubtless be a multiplier effect. Clearly, a shutdown of any significant duration will undermine our economic recovery. Deficit spending may be undesirable, but it is still spending. It keeps people employed and the economy humming.

Politicians will be busy trying to win a war of perceptions. It is likely that Republicans will lose this one. The real pain may begin around March 10, when the first set of social security checks may not go out, although according to NPR the primary impact with Social Security will be enrolling new registrants. In 1995, checks to veterans were suspended, which made for terrible PR. Perhaps President Obama could declare these functions to be essential, but there is little reason for him to do so, as it only gives Republicans more leverage. Expect very public closures of national parks, including prominent places like the Smithsonian and the Statue of Liberty. Other essential functions should keep humming along. Do not expect TSA employees to stop working. In many cases, it remains murky whether those who are essential will be paid. In my agency, “essential” people are required to work but there is no way to pay them. Can any employer require someone to work with only a promise of payment at some murky time in the future? If it goes on long enough, it feels a bit like slavery.

There are some additional things that could be done to move negotiations along. Perhaps President Obama could order the Treasury not to pay members of Congress, which may not be possible. What will happen during a furlough is that a representative’s or senator’s staff would be furloughed. History suggests that if  social security payments are stopped, everyone will sober up, but suspending veterans’ pension payments could do the trick. The wildcard of course is that we have eighty-seven new House Republicans, most of them aligned with the Tea Party, who do not seem amenable to any sort of compromise. The public will doubtless be regularly polled to see which side they agree with. At some point, one party may realize obstinacy is counterproductive to their reelection, and cave.

In the fifteen years since the first government shutdown, doubtless the bureaucracy learned some lessons as well. My current job is in many ways a direct response to the last shutdown, since it resulted in making our data publicly accessible. The strategy worked, to the tune of twenty million or more web pages served per month just for the system that I manage. Should serving this data to the public be deemed not essential, a growing and possibly vociferous community of people and organizations that depend on our data would note its absence. While I expect most phone calls that Congress will receive will come from frightened senior citizens and veterans, government provides a lot more services than it used to, and many are now available on the Internet 24/7/365. The effect may be to raise the pain threshold, but that may be useful if it leads to a quicker resolution of the conflict.

Here inside Club Fed, there is a certain nervousness about a shutdown, but also a certain resignation. Some things are simply beyond our ability to control. As prudent stewards, however, we must be prepared to act if the government is shutdown. Right now, this preparation is taking significant time and resources. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is good if it results in an end to deficit spending. Right now, all this necessary preparation means we are doing less of our primary mission. In that sense, it adds to waste in government.

I am betting it’s going to happen. The House seems to be spoiling for a fight. I might as well head to my local Lowes and start buying paint and rollers.


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