Government shutdown could leave many in limbo

Shutdowns are largely political moves, but many people, pay and procurements hang in the balance

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intends to bring a short-term measure before the Senate next week to avert a federal government shutdown that would affect federal employees and contractors, according to news reports.

However, Republican leaders in charge of the House would reject such a move by Reid if the measure continues funding the government at current spending levels, which they believe are excessive, a report states.

A shutdown would happen if Congress and the president cannot work out a deal by March 4 to appropriate money to agencies for their operations. The House passed a continuing resolution Feb. 19 to fund the government for fiscal 2011. And the Senate has yet to consider the bill, and the Obama administration said it would veto the House's bill.

Still, the chances are small for a government shutdown, although the political situation has changed and the reasons for a shutdown have increased, said Barry Anderson, a former acting director of the Congressional Budget Office. He spoke this morning at a conference hosted by the Professional Services Council on the implications of a potential shutdown.

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Meanwhile, federal employees and government contractors remain in limbo, on the edge of a rare event that has lots of twists and turns as many decisions depend on answers to other questions.

“You will find there is a maze here. There are no good answers,” said John Cooney, who was the general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget during the 1995 government shutdowns. He also spoke at the conference.

If the government closes, agencies would launch their plans required by OMB and downshift to a skeletal crew of employees. Only a few jobs would be exempt from stopping during a shutdown, such as those jobs that protect government property, such as federal buildings, or those that protect life, such as health care services or troop support. Often, Social Security Administration offices remain open and operational, as well as offices related to Medicaid and Medicare services.

This time, IT will be a new problem for officials to deal with. During shutdowns in the past — even the most recent in 1995 — the government was not so dependent on the Internet for providing services.

Cooney said the IT function would be critical during the shutdown, even as officials try to draw a dividing line. For example, the same Web server may host a government website offering registration services for Medicare as well as public relations for the agency. Legal officials would have to decide if the server should operate and if the employee who operates it is a necessary employee.

“OMB is going to have to thinking long and hard about what to do when the same website might be supporting a portfolio of accepted and non-accepted functions,” Cooney said.

However, much of the terms of a shutdown would depend on senior administration officials, and that's a political decision, Cooney said. There are two types of government shutdowns. In a “soft shutdown,” federal employees would come to work but could not do anything “productive,” that is, anything to carry out the central duties of the agency.

“Basically they’re told the clean up their desks and consult with friends,” Cooney said, adding that it’s the flipside of a snow day, where employees come into the office or stay home.

The soft shutdown would only occur if the president believes there’s a chance for a rapid compromise with Congress.

On the other hand, “hard shutdown” would mean employees are furloughed from work.

“The difference between the hard shutdown and the soft shutdown is largely political. We designed it to give the president some other option besides Armageddon,” said Cooney, who helped draft guidance on shutdowns in the 1980s.

In any case, federal employees would feel the effects if the government were to close down. Clearly, there is concern for federal employees who live paycheck to paycheck, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

“For some employees it’s going to be an economic hardship,” he said. “For others, even if they have money put away, it’s just a bad feeling when you have to leave the job that you’ve come to government to do.”

The ultimate cost on employees wouldn't be known until after the fact, he said. It depends on the length of a shutdown, who's affected, and whether they will get back pay.

Government contractors also would be in limbo. Their various contracts may be exempt from the shutdown, but other sections of the company may be able to work on another project, experts say.

A company may have to shift employees to avoid working on a project that isn't funded. The government is banned from accepting voluntary work, Cooney said. In fact, agencies are required to keep people from working. He suggested giving employees training that they may need or having them work on another project that isn't affected by the shutdown.

Contracts paid for with fiscal 2010 money are still in operation, but invoices might be paid late because of a shutdown. The government might owe a little more if the payment is late. Yet the contractor would generally be required to continue working and to bill the government according to the terms of the contract, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council said at today's conference.

Contracts providing products and services won’t be affected in the same way despite using fiscal 2011 money.

Product sellers wouldn't be hit in the same way as service contractors. Companies offering products will face changes in when and where they would make their deliveries, but the government likely will have already paid the companies for those products. However, services aren’t paid for when the contract is signed, Chvotkin said. Those companies may be paid a number of different ways, from quarterly payments for work to jobs done per day.

As a result, a shutdown would tear into service contractors’ pocketbooks, he said.

To deal with a shutdown, Chvotkin and Cooney both recommend that companies talk with their contracting officers about what’s ahead and share their concerns. In preparation, companies should begin analyzing the possible circumstances and make plans in case of a shutdown. They should document if, for example, employees’ job status were changed and account for how the shutdown affected the business, Chvotkin said.

“Make sure you can track the costs as best you can,” he said. “The stronger the documentation, the greater the likelihood of being able to demonstrate the costs incurred.”

As companies stayed in contact with the contracting officers, they also would help those officers who may not have the answers because their bosses may be making the decisions.

Cooney said be patient with the contracting officer, especially if the shutdown goes on for many days.

He said, “The contracting officer may not know and may not have any answer because the decision being made is far above his pay grade and being made on very different grounds.”

Alyah Khan, reporter with Federal Computer Week, contributed to this report.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Wed, Apr 6, 2011 Kay St. Louis, MO

I think that ALL personnell from the President down through ALL of Congress should have to live with the same decisions that are trying to be forced on we the people. They shold have to use the same health care, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaide as well as pensions. The laws should be changed so that the people making the laws and spending our money should have to live with those same "beneifts" including not getting paid for the shutdown and the highly debated healthcare reforms and have to put in to Social Security and Medicaire just like all of us. Then there would be more of an incentive for quality use of money AND quality benefits that we have paid into for all of our working lives..

Sun, Mar 13, 2011

Nothing like going into combat in a country that we don't want to be in.. that we can't fix... oh.. yeah.. do it for free!! Good thing the Republicans moved in.. as if the Democrats weren't jacking it up bad enough lets get the Party of 'No' involved. Before you criticize everything that the other party does.. have a fix.. you can't say something sucks.. and leave it at that.. well you can.. and you may get elected.

Mon, Feb 28, 2011

If a shutdown occurs, it will be caused by the President and congress wanting to spend the peoples money on programs that should be funded by the private sector. Why are we paying for public radio, the arts, planned parenthood, etc? Are these niche programs so sacred the President is willing to shut down government? Congress is willing to fund Federal workers in the scaled back budget for 2011!

Fri, Feb 25, 2011 Mike West Point

Yes, I agree with the Republican leaders in charge of the House on one issue that current expendatures are excessive. One of the first places to start the cuts though would be in their own domain!! Freeze/cut not only their salaries but also their lavish expense accounts and fringe benefits! Prevent all the huge add ons to bills and proposals. Limit talk and debate time on the floor to stop the waste and filibuster type tactics or let it happen but after a time limit charge their district for the time used, lets call it a delay tax. There you go revenue - they should like that idea with all the tax ideas they have had lately! You want savings and cuts, let your actions and examples lead the way!

Thu, Feb 24, 2011

What does a "soft shutdown" have to do with pay? If I come to work during a soft shutdown, am I still getting paid? If I'm not getting paid, who can force me to come to work?

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