Government shuts down as CR fails in the Senate

Large parts of the federal government will shutter at least temporarily as Congress fails to enact a four-week stopgap spending bill. As agencies prepare to power down, officials say cybersecurity is being given a higher priority than it was in the 2013 shutdown.

Shutterstock image. Image credit: Lightspring

The federal government is headed for a temporary shutdown.

In a late-evening vote on Jan. 19, the Republican majority in the Senate couldn't muster the 60 votes needed to end debate and move to pass a month-long continuing resolution that passed the House of Representatives the day before.

A few Democrats broke ranks to support the cloture motion and a few Republicans crossed party lines in opposition.

A White House statement from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders placed blame on the Democrats. "We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands. This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators," she said.

Following the failed cloture vote, the Senate passed a procedural motion that gives Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the opportunity to hold another vote on a temporary funding bill to keep the government open until Feb. 8.

Leaders in the House of Representatives have instructed members to be ready for possible votes Jan. 20.

Still, agencies are preparing to shutter operations, taking their cues from the Office of Management and Budget, individual agency guidance and Office of Personnel Management policy.

At a Jan. 19 White House press conference, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney promised a "very different" shutdown from the 2013 lapse in appropriations under the Obama administration.

"The Obama administration weaponized the shutdown in 2013," Mulvaney said. "What they didn't tell you was that they did not encourage agencies to use carry-forward funds, funds that they were sitting on, nor did they encourage agencies to use transfer authority."

"They could have made the shutdown in 2013 much less impactful, but they chose to make it worse," he continued. "The only conclusion I can draw is they did so for political purposes. So it will look different this time around."

Pressed for specifics by reporters, Mulvaney said, "Parks will be open this time, and they weren't before.… The way it works is that the parks are open, but the -- especially if the services are provided by third parties -- but things like the trash won't get picked up. Fannie and Freddie will be open. The Post Office will be open. The [Transportation Security Administration] will be open."

On an evening press call with senior administration officials, a few more examples were noted. The Merchant Marine Academy, operated by the Department of Transportation will remain open; it had been closed during the 2013 shutdown. The Department of Labor is looking to keep mine safety inspectors on the job, where before that activity was suspended. However, the emphasis remained on highly visible and symbolic operations – the monuments on the National Mall and the entrances to national parks.

One thing that will stay the same, Mulvaney noted, is that active duty service members, border patrol officers and others performing essential duties will continue to work, but they won't be getting paid.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is looking a little more essential than it was in 2013. An OMB official also told FCW that cybersecurity will be a priority in the event of a shutdown. "Agencies will ensure that staff working on the maintenance and safeguarding of IT systems from cybersecurity threats will continue to work during a lapse, and that systems continue to receive critical updates," the official said in an email.

This was borne out in a 16-page guidance document released Jan. 19 by OMB, which noted that, "generally, agency cybersecurity functions are excepted functions as these functions are necessary to avoid imminent threat to federal property." The guidance also recommended keeping systems up and running if shutting them down for the duration of a lapse in appropriations presents a cybersecurity risk.

Agencies are advised to post notices on public-facing websites where services are diminished as a result of a shutdown.

The rules of the road for CIOs and others involved in agency tech vary by department, and not all are deemed essential to agency operations. Some CIO operations have revolving funds or two-year appropriations from which to draw. The Department of Health and Human Services specified that 536 staffers would stay on in the event of a shutdown to protect computer data.

Additionally, the National Programs and Protection Directorate, the cybersecurity wing of the Department of Homeland Security, will be open for business, with 1,944 employees out of 3,538 retained during a lapse in appropriations.

Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, a trade group for contractors, welcomed the new emphasis on cybersecurity.

"Cyber protection was not as high a priority in 2013, and they're absolutely right to recognize the health, life and safety exception that exists in the [shutdown] procedures, and to add cybersecurity to that list," Chvotkin told FCW.

Administration officials told reporters that OMB and agency budgeting for 2019 is not an "excepted activity." Only agencies that have funding to support those efforts can continue, although it was stressed that this and other things could change depending on the duration of a shutdown.

Pay and Furloughs

Feds will be paid on Jan. 26 for work performed through Jan. 19, the end of the current pay period. Officials stressed that Mulvaney supports back pay for furloughed feds.

Additionally, there are bills being introduced in Congress to keep paychecks for active duty service members flowing during a shutdown, and separately to withhold paychecks for lawmakers for the duration of any lapse in appropriations.

Agencies with a law enforcement or military function will be spared massive furloughs. The Justice Department, for example, has tagged about 95,000 of its 115,000 employees as essential. Overall, DHS has declared that more than 210,000 of its 241,385 employees are in positions exempt from furlough.

In the press call, officials admitted to notifying federal employees later than usual as to plans in the event of a shutdown. The delay occurred, officials said, because of the large number of short-term continuing resolutions in advance of a final 2018 funding bill – it only became clear mid-week that this time an impasse between lawmakers was in the offing.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is funded on two-year cycles and largely devoted to operating a network of hospitals and clinics deemed essential, will only furlough just under 16,000 employees out of a total of 377,000. However, IT operations will be hard hit, with 3,100 of about 8,000 tech workers facing furlough in the event of a shutdown.

But for many of the two million federal employees, including 700,000 civilians employed by the Department of Defense, a shutdown means an "orderly unwinding of operations" followed by a furlough. If a shutdown is triggered at midnight on Jan. 19 and continues through Monday, employees will be asked to report to work for a few hours or more of shutdown activity.

"There's any number of projects we have underway that keep me at the top of my game, that keep the military at the top of our game, that are handled by civilians," Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a speech on Jan. 19. "All these things are going to be disrupted," in the event of a government shutdown.

In addition to the DOD civilian workforce, employees with squarely civilian functions not related to law enforcement will see large furloughs. At the Department of Labor, just 2,582 out of more than 15,000 will continue to work. At Housing and Urban Development, 954 of 7,797 employees will avoid furlough.

According to most shutdown guidance, employees will have four hours in the office on the workday following a lapse in appropriations to wind down their activities. These can include calls to contractors and turning in laptops and other devices as called for under individual shutdown plans.

Furloughed employees will have to consult with their agencies on what they are allowed to do with government gadgets. DHS sounded a strict warning in its shutdown guidance, alerting non-exempt employees that they "may continue to retain and monitor their DHS-issued electronic devices for status updates and emergency notifications from their supervisors or other management officials" but not for very much else, at the risk of an Anti-Deficiency Act violation.

Contractors may be among the last to know what to do in the event of a shutdown.

"Generally they're not being kept in the loop. There's been very little communication from agencies," Chvotkin said. "Until there's a shutdown, agencies won't have any communication directly with contractors about impact. Once there is a shutdown, agencies will begin to notify those companies who have to stop work."

Chvotkin is advising contractors to show up for work unless told otherwise.

"Contractors are generally told -- we tell them the same -- unless you're told to stop, you keep working. It doesn't matter if your job is cybersecurity or trash collection. You keep working until the government tells you to stop."

Chase Gunter and Lauren C. Williams contributed reporting to this article.

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