Shutdown planning is the new normal

The last time the government shut down, the Internet was in its infancy and the political landscape was different. Times have changed.

diagram of work team

If the House and Senate fail to agree on a continuing resolution, a shutdown on Oct. 1 would likely affect between 800,000 and 1.2 million civilian federal workers out of about 2 million. Despite fears of a total government shutdown, according to plans filed with the Office of Management and Budget in 2011 --when a funding gap last loomed -- many government functions would continue.

It's not clear what the cost of a shutdown would be. OMB has estimated that the two shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 cost $1.4 billion. However, most of that cost was attributed to the award of back pay to furloughed employees. Leaders of federal employee unions think it is unlikely that in the current climate of furloughs and sequestration, that Congress would agree to a back-pay package for feds sent home during a shutdown.

It's going to be cheaper to spread the word about a shutdown, at least according to the plan put out by the Office of Personnel Management. "Increased use of technology has improved government operations, allowing us to notify employees of furloughs and resumption of operations more quickly and at lower cost," OPM said in its guidance. Agency officials expect employees to keep an eye on OPM.gov and media sources to get news of a spending deal.

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See all of FCW's shutdown stories

Back when President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were at loggerheads over a balanced budget, about 800,000 federal workers were furloughed in two separate partial shutdowns. The Department of Defense and the Food and Drug Administration continued to operate normally because they were already funded by a separate appropriations bill.

The political dynamic now is different in more than one respect. While the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns are remembered as a conflict between Clinton and Gingrich, the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate at the time, giving the GOP additional leverage. Gingrich also maintained a tighter control of his majority in the House, which he led to victory in the wave election of 1994, than Speaker John Boehner now wields.

Brief shutdowns are not uncommon historically. A Congressional Research Services report noted that six took place between fiscal 1977 to fiscal 1980, the longest lasting 17 days. A series of nine shorter shutdowns occurred from fiscal 1987 to fiscal year 1995, the longest lasting three days.

When a shutdown loomed in 2011, OMB revised its guidance on planning for a suspension in operations. The OMB now requires detailed contingency plans to be updated every four years. Now plans must include numbers of positions to be excepted from furloughs. Employees can be excepted because they are paid out of user fees or a revolving fund, or some resource other than an annual appropriation, because their duties are expressly required or are "necessarily implied" under law, they are necessary to protect life and property, or they are "necessary to the discharge of the president's constitutional duties and powers."

The OMB update required agencies to begin filing their detailed, up-to-date shutdown plans by Aug. 1, 2014. Agencies are now updating their guidances to employees via email this week.

A few of these plans are already up.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development expects to operate with 349 out of 8,709 employees. Their CIO office of 244 will be staffed by a skeleton crew of 13. The National Parks Service intends to close all parks and furlough 21,379 of its 24,645 employees. Most of those who remain on the job hold law enforcement posts. Most of the Justice Department's 114,486 employees are excepted from furlough under the protection of life and property provision, with more than 96,000 set to remain on the job. The Environmental Protection Agency plans on keeping about 1,000 of its 16,000 workers active in the event of a shutdown. The Social Security Administration will keep 44,337 of its 62,343 employees at work if a shutdown takes place. About 300 of the nearly 3,200 employees in the CIO office will stick around to make sure the IT that processes Social Security claims and cuts the checks remains humming.

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