The shutdown: what’s it all about, Alfie?

The Thinker by Rodin

Congress is threatening to send me back to work tomorrow. As of this writing (about 4PM ET) the final votes have not been taken but the thinking is that the Senate will approve the proposed “compromise”. House Republicans, bruised and bloodied, will allow Democrats and its few moderate Republicans to pass the bill. The real majority in the House, which is curiously not the Republican Party but Democrats and some moderate leaning Republicans, will finally wield its power, weak though it is. Government will reopen, the trash will be picked up off the National Mall and tourists and homeless people will start urinating inside the public restrooms on the mall, instead of outside of it.

And people like me will go back to work and try to pretend the whole two-week nightmare didn’t happen. I know it happened though. I got my final paycheck through the end of September. It was 43% smaller than the last one. Basically I was paid for six days of work instead of ten (we are paid biweekly). It seems likely that I will get back pay, although the Senate has not approved the bill yet. If there are winners in this debacle, I may be one of the few. I did not have a vacation per se, as it was full of nervousness, just with the cushion of a decent cash reserve. I never stopped working, but it was just not for the feds. Instead I mostly painted. I actually could use one more day as I did not quite finish restaining our deck (rails to come later). I was quite productive, just not for the mission of the United States. As part of my retirement mission: mission accomplished! Many of the chores I would have to do anyhow before we relocate in retirement are now done and two years ahead of schedule.

Mostly though this shutdown screwed lots of people. For most federal employees it was mostly a lot of time at home and trying to swallow their anxiety. For many federal contractors, it meant furloughs for the duration of the shutdown, and zero likelihood of being repaid. For the support people who service federal buildings, the janitors and cafeteria workers, for example: it’s a disaster with no income and no prospect that their employer will pay them for circumstances beyond their control. They tend to live paycheck to paycheck and their paychecks are paltry. For the economy as a whole, this is going to hurt, perhaps through a temporary rise in unemployment and loss of gross domestic product. The uncertainty caused by this shutdown will be quantified at some point and the number will be in the billions of dollars. Less tax revenues will increase the deficit. Less expenditure will affect retail sales.

The stakeholder that matters most is you, the taxpayer. Maybe you weren’t inconvenienced at an airport security line, but for the most part you could not enter a national park. You may discover yourself in the emergency room in a few weeks poisoned by meat you consumed that was unsafe because meat inspectors were furloughed. Certain people trying to close on house sales could not because their papers were not in order. The Center for Disease Control may be behind the eight ball if a new infectious disease breaks out as most of them were furloughed. Don’t assume the government saved money by “closing”. Federal employees like me will be paid retroactively but even if we were not, the actual costs would still be higher than not closing the government.

In reality, government is like a vast machine. It costs serious money to shut it down and serious money to start it up again. To use one example, many servers (computers used to serve information) were shut down. Servers usually work great provided you don’t turn them off. Some percent of these servers will not come back up, and will require parts and service calls. A lot of them will come up but won’t actually work properly. I expect when I turn my government computer on, it will complain because the antivirus software is more than two weeks out of date. I’m sure there will be other issues too. Computer woes will dominate most of my day tomorrow when I shuffle back into the office.

There will be lots of this plus also restarting the human processes. There will be more than two weeks of email to sift through and all sorts of conversations about how our priorities will shift that will take time and tax productivity. I was supposed to have all my employees’ performance evaluations done by the end of October. That’s probably not going to happen. My guess is that our productivity will be fifty percent less than usual for several weeks. Some of our planned work for the year is going to slip. You will get less governing for your tax dollars.

This of course was part of the calculus of Tea Party Republicans. They want less government. True believers as they are, they were willing to die on their swords for the cause, except of course for a few loudmouths like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who has reluctantly decided not to filibuster this last minute “compromise”. He’s having a hell of a first term, having won the antipathy of every senator except possibly Mike Lee (R-UT), who also has agreed to suspend his craziness. You have to wonder why they did, because breaching the debt limit and creating a massive recession is a great way to shake up Washington. Maybe in a fit of sanity they realized they would be marked men when NRA members whose investment portfolios would be halved in value because we breached the debt limit put them in the crosshairs.

The sad reality, which was easy to predict but that Republicans probably won’t admit, is that they lost badly. Obamacare was not stopped, as I predicted. The debt limit was not breached, although rating firms may downgrade our credit worthiness anyhow for all this pointless brinkmanship. The sequester remains but now it appears that agencies will have more discretion on how it will be implemented, plus both sides agree to have talks about getting rid of it altogether. The government could shut down again in January and the debt limit may be breached again in February as well. It’s more likely though that this will be handled more sanely, considering how badly it went for Republicans this time around. The only “concession” I see is a fig leaf one: people getting subsidies for Obamacare are subject to a more stringent audit, but auditing was already in the law. The agreement is basically a tacit surrender by Republicans. What is worse, it they have tarnished their brand. Less than a quarter of the country now “like” Republicans. They are likely to lose the House in 2014.

It’s too early to say whether the Republican Party suffered a fatal wound from this. Gerrymandered districts will be a reality through the next census but it is likely that Tea Party influence will quickly wane now. What is likely to replace them are not moderate Republicans, but sane conservatives.

Hopefully one lesson they will learn is that shutting down the government is counterproductive. Obama, and by inference all future presidents, will no longer negotiate under threat of shutdown or default. Power will have to be wielded the constitutional way again. We will remain the United States of America. The South’s new attempt at open rebellion has failed.

Furlough Diary, Day 13

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m running out of places inside my house to paint and patch. The lower level is now completely repainted. I finished that project last week when I repainted the back of one door that I had neglected in the spring. The walls consisting of our master bedroom closets and vanity have been repainted. The master bedroom itself still looks good enough where it doesn’t seem worth my effort. Last time I painted it, it involved bringing in the ladder I use to get to the roof to paint the room’s vaulted ceilings, a tedious process that I will be glad to leave to the next owners. Last year we had a contractor paint the vaulted ceilings in our living room and hallways, so that’s all done.

So I’m been reduced to painting parts of the kitchen. The planter box that extends over the kitchen sink and out into the yard needed a new coat of semigloss, as did the door to the pantry which still had its original coat of paint. There are a few more doors that need painting but that’s it, aside from my daughter’s bedroom. She is occupying it, so I’ll paint it when she moves out. It’s an odd feeling to be virtually caught up on painting chores, likely for the first time in my life. All this is thanks to dysfunction in Congress.

Which means if this continues, and it looks likely at least for a few more days, outdoor chores will be next on my agenda. Four days of often-unrelenting rain from a Nor’easter has kept me indoors with the paintbrush. Staining the deck again, a chore I have ignored for years, is obviously next up when the weather decides to cooperate. According to the non-furloughed staff at the National Weather Service, we should finally see the sun tomorrow.

Painting has kept me too busy to feel cabin fever set in, but even thirteen days later it still feels unnatural to be home so much. I wisely brought home my plant at the office before leaving on October 1st. I found comfort going to the office most days and find that I miss that routine, not to mention the excellent view of the Shenandoah Mountains on clear days. Except for one trip to Starbucks, I have had no coffee. I keep my coffeemaker at work, and I routinely have two cups of decaf at my desk with lunch. My diet has changed since the furlough. I am less likely to have a salad with lunch, simply because my house has no salad bar, unlike the cafeteria at work. Aside from the cat who usually just wants to be fed, my companion is now WAMU, the public radio station in Washington D.C. that has mostly NPR public affairs content. My portable radio tuned to WAMU follows me as I move from room to room with my paintbrush. It’s a welcome distraction but of course it is mostly shutdown politics and I rarely learn anything new. But unlike my employer at the moment, at least it is something of a new constant in my life. The Diane Rehm Show, the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Talk of the Nation and of course Morning Edition and All Things Considered now follow me through the course of my day. This week will be a trial because it’s membership week. I give the station money every year but I simply cannot deal with the drivel that is membership week. Which means it will be WSCP (C-SPAN radio) next week, when I can tolerate that or, more likely, the sounds of silence.

I am not panicking over money but sometimes I feel like I should proceed with more financial caution. We are going through a cash flow challenge of sorts, which means I will probably have to start drawing from savings soon. My wife is more than gainfully employed, but she is subcontracting, and only gets paid once a month. This means all expenses are paid from my checking account, which consists of my last paycheck plus a few hundred dollars. And boy the expenses have been coming in! A lot of these are routine expenses but there continues to be large numbers of copays, mostly related to my wife and her accident in April, as we continue to chase down the cause of her seizure. There are initial consult fees, test fees, fees to tell you what the test said, random statements in the mail demanding more money, etc. Since October 1st, there has been about $350 in copays and more in prescription medications. Arguably all are necessary.

My next paycheck will be about half of my regular amount, for whatever period is covered through September 30 and that will be it for me until the furlough is over. It looks like we will be paid for the furloughed time. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate, basically on their back burner, but likely to get approved at some point. Still, there are no guarantees. Like Mr. Spock I am trying to stay logical. It makes all the sense in the world to keep hitting the Lowes for paint and other home improvement supplies, even with no money coming in. I keep an account for home improvements, so these expenses will come out of this account, but for the short term it just makes the balance in my checkbook creep toward zero.

Trying to read the tealeaves across the Potomac River continues to be something of a black art. When or if I get to go back to work is unclear. Some days it looks promising and other days less so. The only obvious thing is that Republicans are getting seriously pummeled on the shutdown. I started out skeptical that the shutdown would mean that Democrats would retake the House in elections next year. Now I think it is more likely than not, despite the gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republican incumbents. Some part of me is rooting for the shutdown to continue if it makes this outcome all the more probable. Even Republicans, or at least the sane ones still around, are figuring out they need to cut their losses. When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declares it will support Republican moderates and campaign against Tea Party affiliated candidates, you know something has changed.

What the country needs the most are not necessarily more Democrats, although they are certainly preferable to Republicans, but more moderates. The long-term consequence of this shutdown may be the return of moderates of both political stripes. This shutdown is likely to validate the thesis that a country cannot be governed with extremes on both sides holding power. We need more Mark Warners and (yes, hard to hear me say this) Chris Christies so that they can keep either extreme from getting too far away from the sensible center. We need pragmatists. We need horse traders for politicians again. God help us, we need the earmark. We are starting to see the value of the earmark, which is not so much to put plums in Congressional districts but as the oil that imperfectly moves the gears of government. If these are outcomes of the shutdown, I will welcome then.

In the meantime, I have not yet exhausted my list of home improvement chores, so I will continue to work on them doggedly while the shutdown lasts.

Furlough Diary, Day 8

The Thinker by Rodin

Things are “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice put it. However, Wonderland is a lot less baffling than Washington, D.C. in the midst of a massive government shutdown. I keep expecting things to make sense but in really there is no sense in all this. It feels a lot more like Catch 22 than Alice in Wonderland.

There really is no point to the government shutdown. Republicans have already tacitly conceded that the shutdown has not stopped Obamacare. The health insurance exchanges are online, albeit sporadically given the overwhelming demand and the apparently poor job of software engineering by the contractor for the federal exchange. You would think that since their tactics obviously didn’t work they might concede reality, get over their snit and reopen the government. After all, Senate Democrats have already conceded to Republicans on the size of the continuing resolution, a cut from last year’s Spartan levels.

But, no, that would mean a loss of face, which is way more important than leaving much of the federal government shut down. House Republicans won’t allow a simple up or down vote to be taken on funding the government, although the votes are there to reopen the government. However, the House did vote 408-0 to pay federal workers like me, retroactively of course, for sitting at home. It’s reasonable to ask, “Gosh, if you are going to eventually pay us anyhow, why not send us back to work?” That way at least national parks would reopen and people desperately needing to get into NIH cancer trials might get the opportunity.  But no, that’s can’t happen because you see if we are actually ordered to do something productive then Republicans can’t make people’s lives miserable, and you can’t prove the government is shut down unless people’s lives are miserable. Take out the misery and the whole thing becomes pointless.

In my case, what this amounts to is I am getting an IOU not just to stay home, but also to actively not work. It was made very clear to me when I left work a week ago: I was not to do anything resembling government work, under penalty of law. I’m forbidden from even turning on my government furnished laptop computer, or logging into my government GMail account from my personal computer. Which means I am making excellent money, more than $60/hour plus benefits, to mostly paint my house. Yesterday it was our upstairs bathroom, which needed touching up before our house goes on the market in a couple of years. It actually required totally repainting the room when the paint I purchased turned out to be glossier than what was actually on it. I figure if this goes on long enough, I’ll run out of chores to do around the house. I still have a list that includes cleaning and re-staining the deck, painting part of our master bedroom, washing all our windows, mulching the garden and removing the last of the weeds from it as well. Then I will start on the next set of non-house chores: getting the car inspected and taken in for a tune up. It used to be these were hassles but now I can do them at a time that suits me and eventually get paid obscenely for the privilege. Plus I can sleep in late, although I seem to be up by 8 AM anyhow. For this I can thank our dysfunctional Congress.

Defense Secretary Hagel has decided that most of his employees are essential after all, and called them back in to work. No phone call has arrived from my chain of command. I assume our systems are running okay, but obviously I can’t find out. I do know that when this hullaballoo is over I’ll be just one more civil servant trying to make the chaos stacking up in the office into something orderly and attainable again. All our yearly plans will have to be rethought and re-scoped, at additional time and expense, of course. In all our project plans, there was no place for a task called “government shutdown” but clearly something will have to give: scope, time or cost. Not even a government shutdown can change these facts of life.

The real crime here is the loss of governance. Nowhere in our constitution is there a Hastert Rule, which says only items that a majority of the House’s Republicans agree to vote on will get voted on. This rule, if you think about it, is more insidious than the filibuster. The filibuster is a way to ensure the minority gets heard. The Hastert Rule allows no opportunity for the minority in the House to have any say on what comes before the House. It becomes even more like Catch 22 when you consider that many Republicans are totally okay with breaching the debt ceiling, in fact they are eager to see it happen. It’s not such a big deal, they say. Simply use cash coming in to pay off our foreign creditors. Everyone else can wait. My goodness, what kind of glue are they sniffing? If just one social security payment is late because of this, the Republican Party is done: dead as a doornail in the 2014 elections. It’s amazing they can be so totally clueless about the obvious. It just goes to show the danger of ideology because it can overrule any common sense whatsoever. The real “hostage taking” that President Obama referred to today will be the Republican Party. It has already being held hostage by the Tea Party. It’s like that scene from Blazing Saddles where the sheriff points a gun at his own head.

All work in government is essential because Congress authorized it. It’s just that a lot of the work does not seem essential when you did not vote for the law. The work I do involves planning projects that take years to move from idea to implementation. It means lots of requirements, prototypes of system changes, vetting with user groups, detailed project plans, project tracking and oversight and lots of levels of testing. Declare this work nonessential and you make government less effective. In my case, the impact is that our scientific data is less likely to be shared, or shared as quickly as it could be. It could impact interdisciplinary studies needed to understand the impact of human activities on our climate.

I doubt it’s more important for me to sit at home and paint walls instead. However, if this is how you want to stop government from governing, it is effective, just much more costly than letting government do its business. If Congress wants to tell us this work is no longer essential, it can pass a law and we’ll stop.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep painting. The money is great!

Furlough Diary, Day 3

The Thinker by Rodin

Our bathtub is looking real nice after its caulking yesterday. With time to spare and prohibited from even touching a government-owned device, this currently “non-excepted” i.e. furloughed federal employee has time to play Tooltime Tim. Unfortunately, I’m not terribly skilled at home improvement, given how I messed up my last three attempts to caulk our bathtub. It always comes out looking amateurish. Thanks to being furloughed, I had time to approach this problem in a more systematic way, which meant the innovation of going to YouTube and finding a video to see how professionals do it. Of course! I should have used masking tape! My new caulking now looks professionally done.

We’re not supposed to be doing any government business because the government doesn’t want to compensate us for it when no money is appropriated. Most federal employees I know simply don’t have an off switch. We are vested our work. Yeah, I know that goes against the stereotype of a federal employee as a lazy, unmotivated, obese grade C student. The truth is just the opposite. While I cannot do any work, I can, as a taxpayer, check the web sites I managed (well used to manage) to make sure they are still up. They are, probably thanks to Greg, the one “excepted” employee still at work, just forty-two elect in an agency with over 8000 employees. There are no employees in the field to calibrate any of the gauges reporting our real-time information, so it’s mostly running on autopilot, as is most of the “non-essential” federal government, despite that this data is needed for flood forecasting and all sorts of public safety needs. Maybe if it were our job to kill people instead of help save them then we would be excepted.

It’s a strange business being furloughed. It’s sort of like living in limbo. In past furloughs we were retroactively paid, but that is less likely this time with our ornery congress critters, who already forced many of us to take unpaid furloughs during the spring and summer, and are probably not in a mood to compensate us for their inability to simply do their jobs. While prohibited from doing actual work under penalty of law (but it’s hard to see how it can be enforced, with the enforcers likely furloughed as well), being furloughed also means you can be recalled at any time and if called in you must report. Which means looking for other work to fill the gap is not really an option, unless it is work that you can quit it at a moment’s notice.

Do you know any employers with these kinds of options? I don’t. I think panhandling qualifies, as long as you carry your cell phone with you so your boss can reach you. Moreover, if you feel so fed up with the whole furlough situation that you just decide to quit, well, good luck with that. The HR department is non-essential too, which means they are also furloughed.

Lincoln freed the slaves, but apparently an exception was left for furloughed federal employees who really cannot find employment elsewhere and thus cannot earn a living. Ironically, I have found a way to earn some money while furloughed. I have a small business as an IT consultant that I do on evenings and weekends. I can now do this work during the day and feel guiltless about it, providing I have some work to do. I do have some. One client wants to hire me to do some changes to their user interface, but is busy with a product release, thus I don’t have a good set of requirements to start work. My wife’s boss may give me some programming work, which is fine although I don’t know Python (I’m sure I can pick it up) but I can only do it if I can drop the work at a moment’s notice when and if I am called back to work. It looks like it’s going to be a long wait.

It’s a shame because I have plenty of time during the day which means while furloughed I could get this consulting work done immediately. Instead I am caulking the bathtub. And installing a new toilet seat. And buying cat food, hitting the BJs and the Wegmans. And blogging. In general, I am tackling all the chores I would do before we hope to put the house on the market in 2015. So there will be more caulking, painting, cleaning the deck and pulling weeds in the days, weeks and maybe even months ahead.

What is missing for me is the sense of dread I felt in 1995 and 1996, the last time federal employees were furloughed. Granted if this extends long enough, my feelings may morph to concern and then panic. I don’t feel the need to tighten my financial belts at the moment. We will keep spending as we always have and really I have no idea how to turn it off. How do I tell my wife not to go see the specialist she needs to see? How do I tell the credit union I don’t think it’s advisable for me to make my mortgage payment for a while that I am contractually required to make? Fortunately, my wife brings in some income and we have enough in savings to tie us over.

So my concern is not so much for me but for those much further down the federal civil service ladder, not to mention the huge array of contractors and businesses dependent on federal spending. Many of these GS-5 through GS-12 employees are living at the margins. It may not be popular to hear it but they generally earn considerably less than those in the private sector doing equivalent jobs. They work for the government in part because they like their work, are excited about their missions and in part because of the benefits, which are pretty good, particularly if they make it to retirement. But they are getting squeezed and they have been kicked around a lot already. Many were furloughed for days and weeks earlier in this year due to sequestration.  There have been no cost of living raises for over three years, but their rents have gone up. And then there is the morale problem, kicked around by a Congress that treats them with contempt. These employees are simply scared, living paycheck-to-paycheck, convenient piñatas for mostly men in Congress with no sense of empathy to smash at.

Many of them are professionals in the best sense of the world. This includes people like my brother, a NOAA meteorologist, who is chomping at the bit to go back to work. He knows his research has a real world impact. He cannot work, at least not legally. I suspect a fair number of my employees, particularly those doing software development, are still busy at home coding away on their personal computers, wholly uncompensated, waiting for the day when they will get paid again and can do their small part to make our troubled world a better place.

If only Congress would let us.

Ducks in a row

The Thinker by Rodin

The government may be shutting down on Tuesday, but this near retiree is still not too panicked. Shutdowns don’t last forever, although this latest group of Tea Party Republicans doesn’t seem very amenable to reason, so it could last weeks or longer. I’m not too panicked because not only is retirement on the horizon, my retirement now has a date, sort of: May 2015.

That’s what I told my management chain recently. “Eighty percent certainty.” Watching our dysfunctional Congress at work makes me want to speed that up to an immediate retirement, technically possible but not entirely advisable. The message from Republicans in Congress to us toiling in the federal civil service is kind of hard not to hear: we hate you. There are the constant threats of shutdowns; and this one looks like it is actually going to happen. To make sure you get the message that you are loathed, Republicans don’t seem inclined to compensate us for shutdowns they caused.

Then there are all the other signs, like the lack of anything like a cost of living raise these last four years. For four years inflation has eroded the value of my salary without even a penny in cost of living increases. And of course, there were furloughs. My agency was fortunate enough to escape them this year, but not without much anxiety. “Retire if you can and don’t mind us if we kick you in the pants on your way out the door. We don’t give a shit about all your hard work during your career. Just get the hell out. If we make your life miserable enough, maybe you will just quit and do the taxpayers a favor.”

Message received. But retirement, if you can even afford to retire, is not something to do on impulse. You have to have some confidence that you can actually afford to retire. There are so many factors to consider. In our case, there’s the remaining debt on our house, which ideally should not be carried into retirement. There is also the pension amount. The longer you wait, the higher the pension. Since my pension is based on my highest annual salaries, the lack of a cost of living raise for four years has effectively cut my pension. Thanks, Republicans!

Then there is the larger question of what the heck I am going to do in retirement. The research shows not doing anything cuts your mortality significantly. It also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, the brain is something like a muscle. If you don’t challenge it by giving it obstacles, it tends to atrophy. Anyhow, there are lots of puzzle pieces to consider. There is also our daughter, now age 24, who presumably should move out and be able to support herself independently before we retire. But I must say that being retired is looking quite appealing, if for no other reason that I don’t have to feel like a piñata anymore. Instead of Congress giving me the finger, I can give them one back.

My boss’s retirement in June had the effect of making me more than a little jealous. At least she is out of the mess. I am still in it. My glide slope to retirement though seems a little sad. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, is such a terrific employer. It’s doing everything it can possibly do to maintain morale and let employees know their work matters. But it can’t keep us from being furloughed except for the handful whose work is deemed “excepted” from furlough. That depends on a Congress that actually cares about the laws on the books and values its mission, rather than the anarchistic boobs we have instead.

So May 2015 is about right. My service computation date cranks into another year, which increases the pension to a marginally more satisfying amount. And I still have twenty months to keep putting income into retirement accounts. I do care enough about my job and the people who work for and with me to make my transition out as reasonably painless as possible for those who will pick up my slack. I’d like to have most of my projects complete and to do whatever mentoring I can to those who might assume my position. Twenty more months should allow all this to happen.

I am hopeful that Democrats will regain the House in the 2014 elections and that sanity will return to Congress then. It would be nice to retire with a government that again values rather than scorns its employees. It will be an uphill fight with House districts so crazily gerrymandered, but it is potentially doable. A shutdown that lasts for more than a week might be the animus that tells voters it’s time to escort these bulls out of our national china shop.

I can thank Republicans for one thing: giving me the animus to call John, our financial adviser, and run through the scenario where I would retire earlier and, if necessary, take the rest of my life off. What would our retirement parachute look like? We ran through all sorts of scenarios based on pension estimates, investment income, savings and probable expenses. I asked him to project all sorts of unlikely scenarios, including a cut in my pension and mediocre stock market returns on our portfolio over the thirty or so more years I hope to be alive. It all looks doable if I stay on the plan. It is made better by relocating to a less expensive area of the country, which is part of our animus at looking at retirement areas. Our financial adviser, like most, likes to use Monte Carlo simulations to make portfolio projections. It is sort of like throwing random die on a table over thirty years, and using those numbers to project investment returns. Even in the most unlikely scenarios, we should do fine. We can maintain our standard of living without needing to earn a dime after retirement.

Retirement, if you can do it, can be more of a door opening than one shutting behind you. I will be glad to put the federal rat race behind me. I don’t know what my future will look like beyond inevitable aging and death. But I do know I am up to the challenge.

Twenty months to go.