Trial by Fire for Agency Contingency Plans as US Barrels Into Shutdown

WASHINGTON (CN) – Between back pay and lost income, there will be no getting around the multibillion-dollar cost of a government shutdown. Once Friday’s deadline lapses, however, federal agencies will learn how well they prepared for the coming storm.

Though the House passed a temporary spending bill by a narrow margin late Thursday, the legislation has slim prospects of making it through the Senate.

Taken from a video uploaded by the White House in April 2017, this image shows White House budget director Mick Mulvaney standing in front of federal regulations he says were created in the last two years.

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, apparently put chances of a shutdown at 50-50 this morning.

“We were operating under a sort of 30 percent shutdown up until yesterday,” said Mulvaney, who this November took charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I think it’s ratcheted up now. We’ve had our meeting just about a half an hour ago, a teleconference with a bunch of agencies to tell them to start to implement their lapse plan, the next step in preparing for a lapse in funding.”

While law enforcement activities continue for the most part during a shutdown, contingency plans help agencies determine which employees and services are also exempt, and how to wind down nonessential operations.

The requirement for such plans was put in place by the Office of Management and Budget after the last government shutdown, a 16-day ordeal in October 2013 that saw 850,000 workers furloughed at its peak.

Sam Berger was a senior counselor and policy adviser at OMB during the Obama administration from 2010 to 2015. Now on staff with the nonpartisan Center for American Progress, Berger said in a phone interview that one of the biggest hurdles for agencies in the shutdown was making sure no one in government tried to work without pay.

“People get into public service because they want to help,” Berger said. “People come to the government because they care about the programs that they’re doing and they know how important they are to the American people.”

With furloughed federal employees missing 6.6 million days of work in 2013, the OMB’s November report on the shutdown put lost productivity of those workers at $2 billion.

The government spent another $2.5 billion in benefits and back pay for hours some of the furloughed employees did work, but every employee was not eligible.

Center for American Progress policy adviser Sam Berger was a senior counselor at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration from 2010 to 2015.

“There’s obviously no guarantee about what will be done,” Berger said of determining who gets back pay. “And it does create a lot of stress there.”

Berger estimated that the 2013 shutdown caused government workers to miss at least one paycheck that year.

“That puts a strain on families that are relying on that to make important payments,” he said.

Out of the 850,000 government employees furloughed at the peak of  the last shutdown, 350,000 civilians were back to work at the Pentagon for Week 2.

Faced with the possibility of another shutdown, the Pentagon released guidelines on Thursday regarding which operations will continue.

This 14-page document says nonessential civilian employees will be furloughed, but all active-duty military personnel must continue their service without pay for the duration of a shutdown.

Any civilian employees necessary to carry out support or other excepted services must also continue working without pay until Congress reaches a budget deal and appropriates the funds.

Because the last shutdown required the closure of national parks and the Smithsonian Insitution, lost visitor spending amounted to more than $500 million. Before reaching this figure, the National Parks Service took into account the 13 parks that reopened after the first week with help from state funds.

The National Park Service estimated that it lost about $7 million in revenue from entrance fees, campgrounds, tours and other sources. Meanwhile the Smithsonian, which gets revenue from stores and theaters, special events and concessions at the National Zoo, lost an additional $4 million.

Along with galleries and a zoo, the Museum of Natural History is one of 17 museums that make up the Washington, D.C., complex known as the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian is set to follow the same procedures from 2013 if there is another shutdown. A spokeswoman said in an email that the Smithsonian will keep its museums and the National Zoo open this weekend, but close them Monday in the event of a shutdown. Its two museums in New York City will also be closed, she said.

Other agencies have plans in place as well. A spokeswoman for the Department of Interior said its contingency plan was last updated on Dec. 7, and a spokesman for the Small Business Administration said their contingency plan is much more solidified now than in 2013.

“Not much really needs to be done at this point other than awareness and knowing that the plan could be implemented if there is a lapse in appropriations,” the SBA spokesman said in an email Thursday. “We’re hopeful that there will not be a lapse,” he added.

In the OMB’s 2013 report, auditors detailed how the last shutdown hurt the broader travel industry and local businesses.

If families who had been planning to visit the Smithsonian canceled their travel plans, for example, that would hurt attendance at other venues like the National Gallery of Art.

“This has a real effect on folks and it’s not just federal employees, although they are very much affected by it,” said Berger with the Center for American Progress.

As the prospects of an eleventh-hour compromise grow dim Friday, mixed messages from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue offer little consolation.

Just this past May, President Donald Trump tweeted that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown.’” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders now denies that Trump wants a shutdown, but the president offered conflicting assessments hours apart Thursday of the short-term spending bill that would fund the government through Feb. 16.

What is clear is that Trump will blame the Democrats if the shutdown happens.

“However, as the deal is negotiated, the president wants to ensure our military and national security are funded,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said in a statement Thursday. “He will not let it be held hostage by Democrats.”

Berger with the Center for American Progress called out this rhetoric.

“In a situation like this where you have a bipartisan deal that’s out there – a bipartisan deal on a whole number of issues – with the president sort of barreling toward this shutdown that he’s wanted, there will be real costs to that,” Berger said. “I think he seems to underplay or even ignore those very real costs. He kind of seems more concerned about his political advantage than the impact on the American people.”

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