Should Feds Worry About Another Shutdown?

”It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”

That 1930s quote from a Danish politician is more true today than ever. With the last government shutdown little more than a week behind us, there is already talk of another one. The political divisions that resulted in the last shutdown have not gone away, and the issues are still important to both parties. On Tuesday night Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in an interview that there is “no chance” there will be an omnibus appropriations deal passed by the Feb. 8 deadline. That means he sees little likelihood of anything other than another continuing resolution. So – should federal workers be worried that there will be another shutdown? And if there is another one, what do feds need to know?

Let’s start with the first question. Unless you are a compulsive worrier, getting stressed out over what the politicians are doing isn’t going to do any good. If you want to do something constructive, contact your representative and senators and let them know what you think about the potential shutdown and the underlying issues. Whether your politics run to the left, right or center, those folks are supposed to represent you and they do pay attention to what their constituents tell them. The fact that this is an election year may make them more likely to care what you think and getting your views heard can bring some satisfaction.

In the event there is another shutdown, what do feds need to know and do?

Some of the greatest concerns about shutdowns are from those folks who live paycheck-to-paycheck. For them, a long shutdown could be disastrous. Anything that disrupts pay for someone whose finances are on the edge is a problem. Those folks should be thinking now about what they would do if pay is delayed. That may mean using credit cards to deal with short term cash needs (but not leaving those balances on the card when pay is restored), borrowing from family, or talking with creditors and asking to make late payments. It is always better to ask or notify in advance than to simply not pay the bill.

In a prolonged shutdown, some people might want to look for a temporary job. Keep in mind that a shutdown does not change or negate any restrictions on outside employment that might apply to you. If you cannot do outside work when the government is open, you cannot do it when the government is shut down.

I know a lot of federal workers are worried that their work will not get done during a shutdown. They care about the work and the consequences of it not being done. They also know their agencies will want them to get everything caught up soon after a shutdown ends. Many of them will want to keep working during a shutdown. They rationalize it by saying that they know they will eventually get paid, so there is no harm in continuing to work from home. I admire their integrity and their dedication to their work, but I encourage them to stop working during a shutdown. The law says the government cannot accept their services, and the fact is that there should be consequences for Congress not getting its work done.

The bill that ended the shutdown also included a provision could be interpreted as authorizing back pay for that shutdown and any other shutdown that occurs in this fiscal year. The language is in a section covering grantees, but it is unclear if it refers only to those folks or to federal workers as well. Even if the language does not cover a future shutdown, the number of members of Congress expressing support for back pay for feds is so large that no one should worry that they will not get back pay.

As we saw in the last shutdown, there is no way to predict how long a shutdown might last. That means taking advantage of the shutdown to go on vacation is risky, unless you know you have leave available and that taking it will be approved. Given the amount of work that does not get done during a shutdown, it would generally be reasonable for a supervisor to deny annual leave due to workload when the shutdown ends. Employees are better off staying nearby and being ready to return to work the following day.

I received some questions during the last shutdown from folks who were concerned about their insurance and whether it would remain in effect during the shutdown. The answer is yes, it remains in effect. This is one of the many questions that OPM answers in its excellent Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs. Anyone who is worried about a potential shutdown should check out that guidance. It is thorough and has in-depth answers to many questions.

So – should feds worry about another shutdown? I think the answer is no. Our elected representatives did not exactly cover themselves with glory in the last one and neither party emerged as a clear and convincing “winner” of the shutdown (if such a thing exists). If we combine political self-interest with a voting population that increasingly says “A plague on both your houses!” my prediction is that they will find some way to agree on another continuing resolution. Even if they do not, the likelihood of a long shutdown is remote. Because the most serious effects on federal workers occur only in a prolonged shutdown, my advice is to not worry about it.


Shutdown: It Ain’t Over When Its Over

The news that the Senate has reached a compromise to end the government shutdown is good news. It would be even better news if it meant the 2018 budget and appropriations process was done. After all, the fiscal year began 114 days ago. This new deal – another continuing resolution – keeps the government open until Feb. 8.

All of the problems that are caused by government by continuing resolution are still there. Long-term contracts may be affected, planning for the year is on hold or happening in slow motion, and agencies are spending money they do should not need to spend. The Department of Defense has been clear in its statements that government by CR is hurting them. Other agencies are saying they have similar feelings about CRs.

This looks like it is going to be a short shutdown, so you might conclude it will have no lasting effect. I think that is probably not true. Here are just a few longer-term effects of a shutdown.

Uncertainty about 2018 funding. The negotiations in the House and Senate have included proposals to significantly increase defense spending and to increase spending in some civilian agencies. They include proposals for varying amounts of disaster recovery money for Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. At the same time, the president’s budget proposal for the year still calls for cuts in many agencies. What will come out of mthe ongoing negotiations? No one knows for sure, so agencies are in a holding pattern.

Spring and summer spending. Once the appropriations are in place for the remainder of the fiscal year (if we do not end up with a string of CRs lasting for the rest of the year)agencies will have to assess what they got and what they needed, then allocate money to program offices. That is going to take a while, so expect a rush to get the money spent. Do not blame the agencies for that – they had nothing to do with it.

Hiring. If you are a highly skilled person who is considering looking for a new job, will the federal government be high on your list? After all, why not go to work for an organization that periodically shuts down for no reason? Everyone wants to sign up with an outfit where half of the board of directors goes out on the front steps and rakes the other half over the coals. That makes the government an employer with questionable stability and reliability.

The reputation of federal workers. I spent part of my weekend reading and watching coverage of the shutdown. One thing I heard often was the discussion of “nonessential” employees who were sent home. Some folks say “if they are nonessential, why do we need them anyway?” Let’s get this one straight. There is no category of employees who are deemed “nonessential” in a shutdown. That is not a term of art – it is a just a commonly misused term. The categories of employees that matter in a shutdown are excepted, exempt and furloughed.

Exempt employees are paid by appropriations that do not have to be passed by Congress every year or by fees or working capital funds.  They work during the a lapse of appropriations because their money is still there. They also continue to get paid for the same reason. There is a possibility that the money would run out. For example, if an agency relies on fees paid by other agencies from appropriated dollars, the money can dry up quickly during a shutdown. In that case, the employees would shift to the other two categories.

Excepted employees (not the same as the excepted service) work because they are engaged in activities that cannot be allowed to stop. The Border Patrol is a good example. If we took the Border Patrol offline during a shutdown, the number of undocumented border crossings would skyrocket. People who want to do us harm would see an ideal opportunity to get their people into the U.S. Even though there is no money available to pay them, the work of the Border Patrol is so critical to our safety that they will continue to work. It is important to remember the exception covers their work and not their leave. If an excepted employee wants to take leave, s/he must be furloughed for that time. The legal justification is solid – we can make an exception to protect the border, save a life, engage in diplomacy, or many other excepted functions, but we cannot make an exception to go on vacation. The key point to remember is there is no way to pay excepted employees until the shutdown is over.

Furloughed employees are sent home without pay. There is no money available to pay for their work, and their work does not have the urgency that work such as the Border Patrol has. They are still subject to all of the restrictions and requirements that covered them when they were working. That means they cannot get outside employment without approval, cannot take gifts from contractors or other sources, etc. They are subject to a rapid recall, so they cannot treat the furlough time like a vacation and go away.

None of those employee designations is “essential” or nonessential.” If government got rid of the employees who are furloughed during a shutdown, most agencies would cease to exist in any meaningful way. I would not be happy to see the Weather Service disappear. Or NASA, the IRS, the National Science Foundation, HUD, Energy, or the EPA. But because of the sloppy language that is misused by some folks, some readers and viewers get the idea that there are categories of employees for shutdowns called essential and nonessential.

I hope all federal workers are back on the job in the morning. I hope Congress does it job and passes an appropriation that lasts the entire year. And next fiscal year I hope there are appropriations in place on Oct. 1. I am not optimistic that those hopes for the remainder of the year will be realized.