Dancing the Furlough Kabuki

The Thinker by Rodin

Much to my surprise, the government shutdown I anticipated last week never happened. The snarling, obfuscation and “my way or the highway” statements on Friday suggested (at best) a weekend with the federal government shutdown. Much of the noise was apparently posturing. A deal was struck late on Friday. Another continuing resolution was passed by both houses and hurriedly signed by the President. Staff worked through the weekend writing the bill both houses of Congress will vote on this week to cover federal discretionary spending through the end of September. Its passage is not assured, but seems likely.

If you truly want to gum up the workings of government, keep dribbling out money to agencies week by week with no idea of how you will ultimately be permitted to spend it. This “gumming the gears up” strategy seems to have worked well so far, from the perspective of someone nested inside the federal bureaucracy. We have spent all sorts of time and money just figuring how to shutdown gracefully if required to do so. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like trying to turn off an aircraft carrier. It can be done but happens only when it is decommissioned, so no one bothers to figure out how to do it. Guidance on who was essential, who was not and what the rules would be for a furlough were confusing and were constantly shifting. What systems needed to be maintained and which could be stood down during the furlough were also subject to great change. All sorts of preliminary and revised guidance documents came down, many of which were lengthy and could not be read fully in the time required. On Friday there were last minute meetings by senior leadership in my organization, resulting in even more last minute meetings with staff that still left questions open. It seemed at one point that if you were “nonessential” you could not even read your work email after midnight on Friday.

I was in Denver on business all week, which made it even more confusing. I monitored email and listened in on conference calls all while trying to work in a conference room but I received little clarity. In the middle of the afternoon on Friday, I finally boarded a bus to Boulder to spend the weekend with my brother. I left convinced that if I saw my office on Monday it would only be to issue furlough notices to my employees, return my laptop computer and get my own furlough notice. Fortunately, my airfare home was prepaid, but we were warned that if a shutdown happened then our government credit cards could not be used after midnight last Friday. My travel expenses, like baggage and shuttle fees, might come out of my own pocket.

One thing was for sure: I was “nonessential”. I remember reading some news report where some citizen who was asked about the shutdown said that we should get rid of all nonessential people in the government. Think of all the money that could be saved! I am sure this citizen was one of many with the same opinion. Here’s the reality: essential people cannot do their work for long without nonessential people. Take the human resources office, for example. They are likely all nonessential employees. The essential employee though has to hope he does not get a workplace injury, because someone in HR would need to facilitate a claim. Similar things are true about my job and my “nonessential” staff. One sailor may be able to maintain the rigging on a small ship, or even a large ship in a calm sea. It’s in stormier seas that you need extra crew. Moreover, no sailor will stay for long on a ship where the cook does not have meals ready in the galley. No autopilot mode can last forever. Eventually, many other people are needed to keep the whole thing working. An immense amount of coordination is needed to run government lawfully and in a planned and systematic fashion.

So using terms like “essential” and “nonessential” were probably not the best choice of words. “Critical” and “noncritical” would have been better. In my office, only one person was deemed essential, and it was not a manager. It was a technical guy who could troubleshoot problems with our critical servers. In the event of a shutdown, we were told it was against regulations to check our email. Why? We would be working and we could not be compensated for “nonessential” activities, therefore it was unlawful to do so. How do you move from nonessential to essential? Someone who is essential has to tell you that you are essential, and then you are only allowed to work until your essential work is done, and then you go off the clock. Oh, and don’t expect to be compensated until after the shutdown is over.

You would think that if you are furloughed, nonessential and unpaid to boot, then you should be able to be a free agent during the furlough. If I wanted to earn some extra income working the French fry vat at the local McDonalds, I should be able to do so. Not so fast! There are rules for these sorts of things. If my agency suddenly is funded, then I still may be nonessential but I must report to work. Nor can I volunteer my time while furloughed, or take a paid or unpaid vacation because I need to be available if something essential does come up. Nor can I file for unemployment, at least not immediately, because in Virginia where I live I have to wait two weeks. In short being furloughed doesn’t mean that you are out of a job, just that there is no money to pay you and you cannot work. Technically, you remain employed, but you don’t earn a salary and need to stay close to home. Oh, and you can’t call your supervisor because they are nonessential too. In short, being furloughed is a Catch 22. In theory, you could be on furlough for years, draw no salary, and yet be unable to accept another job.

In the 1995-1996 shutdowns, in the end it did not matter. Congress subsequently reimbursed employees who were nonessential as if they had actually worked. This time if a furlough happens everyone agrees reimbursement won’t happen. In some sense, this is unfair, but not to the taxpayer who sees no point in paying anyone who is not working. It is unfair from the perspective of a federal employee who is willing to work, cannot and is not allowed to do any other work as well. Their only option is to quit the federal government altogether. Unfortunately, with HR being nonessential, there is no way to quit until the furlough is over. You can’t even call your boss to say, “I quit!” So starting a new job during your furlough is in some sense, illegal.

So far these procedures have been all moot, but I imagine they will occur, and probably sooner rather than later. The federal debt limit must be raised soon, which offers Republicans more opportunities for furlough shenanigans. Then there is the FY12 budget, whose passage will make the FY11 budget look like a cakewalk. Perhaps clarity will return after the 2012 elections. I have some hope that by then voters will be so sick of extreme polarity that they will vote sensible moderates into office. I’d best not count on it.

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