"Normal Life" during a Federal Government Shutdown
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, your turn. What do you think the mayor of D.C. and the city council chairman need to do to overcome the scandals of the past couple of weeks? But first, time is ticking as Congress tries to get a budget in place. In a couple of weeks, the prospect of a government shutdown could be looming once again. Federal agencies, contractors and other employees are revising their plans. In a city so heavily populated by federal workers and dependent on cherry blossom tours for business, a shutdown could mean bad news. Here to talk about the impact a shutdown might have on D.C. workers and memories of the last one is Ed O'Keefe. He's the "Federal Eye" columnist for The Washington Post. He keeps his eye on the federal workforce. Ed, thank you for joining us.
MR. ED O'KEEFE
Great to be with you, Kojo.
Joining us by telephone, helping us to understand the way a shutdown would affect D.C.'s popular and free tourist attractions, we've got Linda Saint Thomas. She's spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. Linda Saint Thomas, welcome to the broadcast.
MS. LINDA SAINT THOMAS
And you can start calling with your questions or comments right now. 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to email@example.com. Ed O'Keefe, before we get to how we deal with a shutdown now, let's start off talking about the last shutdowns. How long did they last, and what was the impact?
There were two. There was one in November 1995 that ran about five days, and then, there was a much longer one. The longest in U.S. history, which ran from late December into early January. It lasted 21 days, three weeks. And longtime residents of D.C. will recall that right after that shutdown, there was a big snowstorm...
...which kept some federal workers out of the office for even a few more days. So, you know, devastating impacts, some would say. Others said, well, you know, everyone got paid back, anyway, so it was just basically a three-week vacation. But you had all sorts of different issues, you know? Social Security checks didn't go out. The State Department couldn't process passports. Veterans didn't get their benefits. And one of the most interesting I've always thought is that the manure piled up at the National Zoo because they didn't have the money to compost it or to send it to be composted out of the facility in Manassas. So all sorts of practical impacts. And, of course, as Linda and her colleagues will tell you, you know, the museums, the national parks across the country, obviously, also impacted. Tourists were not allowed to walk some parts of the National Mall.
Indeed, Linda's gonna tell us about that. But first, I'd like to know if you have any memories of the last government shutdown, and how you were affected. Call us at 800-433-8850. Of course, the last time there was a shutdown, it happened in winter. This time, it would be the beginning of tourist season, right around cherry blossom time. Linda Saint Thomas, as Ed was saying, tell us a little bit about what happened with D.C.'s attractions during the last shutdowns.
Well, let's hope this shutdown isn't nearly as long if it happens at all. It looks like we have a little bit of a grace period here. What it would -- what it meant for the Smithsonian -- yes, it was the dead of winter, so that's our slowest time, but it does mean that when we close the museums, we're also closing the Imax theaters, the cafeterias and the museum shops, which are a source of revenue for the Smithsonian. That would be more serious in the month of March or in the spring and summer season than it would -- than it was in that winter.
In just a minute, we'll hear what our listeners have to say about that shutdown. As I said, you can still call us. 800-433-8850. Share your memories of the last one. But, Ed, you've been talking to people who vividly remember the '90s. What have you been hearing from those people?
Well, there were a lot of different people who -- you know, I remember I've been going through our archives, too, and there were some pretty vivid stories of federal employees who took it upon themselves to go find another job in the meantime, because they were worried. There was one guy who signed up as a bike messenger. He said, you know, to heck with this. I'm gonna keep myself busy, and I'm gonna try to make some money. There was another who -- she said was applying for a waitress job, because she said I've got to earn some money around the holidays. And if that's the way to do it, so be it.
You had others who, you know, were just, you know, trying to make ends meet during the holiday season. They admitted that they scaled back their Christmases. Knowing that the money would come eventually but not having it on...
(unintelligible) right now.
Right. But not having it at the time that they needed it.
And people would be surprised that how many federal employees, like so many others, live in many respects, paycheck to paycheck. But, Ed, what would be different this time around?
Lots of things. The biggest one that I think folks in the Washington area especially can comprehend and appreciate is the number of government services provided or done now by contractors. You know, it's exploded into hundreds of billions of dollars just last year, and there's, you know, much higher than it was in the mid-'90s. So, you know, all sorts of private companies, mostly small and mid-sized companies, not Lockheed and Boeing, but, you know, smaller firms that do IT support work. They do the catering at the government buildings and the cafeterias. They're doing administrative work in the offices. Those people would be out of work as well.
And there's never been legislation passed after a shutdown to retroactively provide the money to pay contractors. So either the contracting firms who depend on the government for the revenue would have to somehow come up with the money to pay their workers or not pay them at all. The other big difference that some folks have pointed out to me is, of course, the Internet. You know, could people conceivably work from home, tele-work, while they're, you know, off. Technically, in many cases, legally, they're not supposed to, but there is a thought that perhaps some might be able to maintain their work schedule by working at least a little bit from home on the computer.
And that bike messenger thing with the advent of more use of the Internet probably not a good option this time.
Probably not, yeah.
Onto to the telephones. Here is Douglas in Alexandria, Va. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment that it just blows my mind every time I hear about these fat pigs in government just, you know, of course, they can go ahead and take a few days off from getting their pay. They know it's coming later when you've got the elderly who needs their Social Security money. You've got veterans who fought for these people, and they don't have what they need. And it just -- it's a travesty, and that's my comment.
Okay. Thank you very much. The notion of fat pigs in government, Ed O'Keefe, may apply to a few very highly placed officials, but this perception that a wide, large number of government employees are, as Douglas said, fat pigs or fat cats, some people would say why does that perception survive (unintelligible) ?
Well, let's clarify one thing that Douglas said there, which is an understandable concern. Just because the Social Security checks and veterans checks didn't go out last time, it doesn't mean that won't happen this time, especially because so much of that is now automated. The money is being directly deposited into accounts. A few thousand workers would come in to help process that, but the agencies who said you could expect that that money will happen.
Look, the issue of federal pay, of government worker pay versus the private sector is a debate that lingers and really has intensified in the last two years. The best way to look at it is to do an apples-to-apples comparison between someone who holds a certain position in the government versus someone in the private sector. So let's look at, for example, a government Justice Department lawyer versus a lawyer who works at one of the law firms downtown. You better believe that the guy working at the law firm on K Street is making a lot more money than the guy working on Pennsylvania Avenue with the Justice Department. Same goes for surgeons at the VA versus a surgeon at Sibley or Inova Fairfax, you know? There's differences there.
What critics do and to some extent this is a fair comparison is they take the total sum of federal salaries, and they compare it to the private sector. And they say, look, the federal sector is making so much more than private sector companies, and why is it that that's allowed to happen? The government turns around and says, well, look, a few reasons. First of all, government workers are much more educated and much more experienced than private sector employees. Percentage-wise, more of them are college graduates. They have graduate degrees. They may have very specified, you know, education in science or medicine or whatever. The other reason is that the federal workforce is older than the private sector, people who have been in the government for 20, 30 years. Obviously, the longer you're there, the more money you earn because of the experience.
But that is a sideshow really to this fear of shutdown because there have been various pieces of legislation advanced, mostly by Republicans, to either extend the two-year pay freeze that's underway, conceivably furlough employees for longer periods of time or perhaps attrit the federal workforce by replacing two departures with only one replacement overall across the government.
Douglas, thank you for your call. Ed O'Keefe writes the "Federal Eye" column for The Washington Post, keeping tabs on the federal workforce. He joined us in studio. Joining us by telephone to discuss the prospects or the possibility of a federal government shutdown and its likely effect is Linda Saint Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. Linda, what could we expect from the Smithsonian if there were to be a shutdown this time?
Well, we would have to close the museums, and we would close the National Zoo. Now, we would still have some minimal security here and some maintenance as we do on the one day a year that we're closed, which is Christmas Day. And, obviously, we would have at the zoo, we would have our vets and keepers and nutritionists and our zoo police and others that are needed to care for the animals (unintelligible).
Well, if they're there and it's free going to the zoo, why can't you open it up?
Because federal employees are not, as Ed told you, federal employees are actually not permitted to work. It's actually illegal. So most of our employees are federal. We have to get an exemption for those who are needed, and certainly, keepers, vets and security would qualify for exemptions.
800-433-8850. Were you planning on having family in town this spring? Do you work in tourism or hospitality, maybe you own restaurant or a bed and breakfast? Do you have a plan in case of another federal shutdown? Call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Mike in Arlington, Va. Mike, your turn.
Hello, Kojo, Ed and Linda. Good afternoon.
So I just want to step back and make a kinda of broader point. If the worst thing that happens when a multitrillion-dollar federal government shuts down is that we can't go to the zoo (unintelligible) or there's a big pile of (unintelligible) question. What do we do? What does the federal government really accomplish when they are in business? You know, you look at small states like New Hampshire that have a really short legislative season. They're really open for business only for about a month long, and the lights seem to stay on in New Hampshire. Places like that are just fine. Maybe we need to regionalize or significantly trim the federal budget even greater.
Well, you're comparing the legislature with the workforce, and we're not talking about the legislature shutting down. Here, we're talking about the workforce.
That's right. And actually, Mike, you make a good point, and one that Democrats privately would tell you, they're worried about it. And one of the reasons why they want to avoid a shutdown is because in this post-9/11 world, when so many more elements of the government would actually be able to continue functioning because of concerns about protection of life and property, you know, elements of the Treasury Department because they're working on financial regulatory reform, elements of homeland security, the airport security screeners, the air traffic controllers, the FBI agents working on anti-terror cases. It might lead the public to say, my gosh, you're still basically functioning, what are you really doing to cut back?
On the flipside, you close too little, and it is gonna perhaps, you know, raise arguments that the government isn't taking it seriously enough, that perhaps there are other things that could afford to get closed down, and that the arguments for keeping certain things open are ill founded. But this is definitely an element of it, and one of the reasons why the Obama administration has been acting so tightlipped about what it is they're plotting here if indeed they need to close things down. We know that all the agencies are putting together contingency plans probably for the first time since 1996, brushing off those old documents and taking a look at them again. But they're not gonna share them unless they absolutely have to.
Mike, thank you very much for your call. We're gonna take a short break. If you have calls, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call when we come back. Otherwise, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, if the phone lines are busy. Join the conversation there. We're talking about a federal government shutdown, the implications and possible consequences. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Welcome back. We're talking about the implications, possible consequences of a federal government shutdown which has been put off for a while. Our guests are Ed O'Keefe. He writes The Federal Eye column for The Washington Post, keeping tabs on the federal workforce. And Linda Saint Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. The government has guidelines as to what it will and will not shut down, last updated during the Reagan years. What's the gist of these guidelines, Ed?
Basically, they're working off of Reagan era guidelines that say, if you are directly or somewhat directly involved with protection of life or property, you will get an exemption during a shutdown. Otherwise, you've got to stay home. And like I said earlier, in this post 9/11 environment, when there's so much emphasis on, not only national security, but financial security, and with the ongoing issues in the Middle East, there is reason to believe that a good segment of the government, that might not normally be included in an exemption, is gonna have to stay on.
We talked to some State Department officials last week who said, look, you know, the guys who deal with Libya might not have been exempted, but because that's the issue this week, the Middle East desk is gonna be fully staffed. You know, other corners of the world, they might stay home or, you know, not work as much. But, you know, that could change by next week or whenever a shutdown occurs. So they've got these plans, but they won't, you know, sign, seal and deliver them to the Office of Management and Budget until they absolutely have to.
Of course, tax payers are not happy when the government just doesn't work. People will be looking for someone to blame. Linda Saint Thomas, have you been hearing any grumbling at the Smithsonian?
No. The grumbling will begin when a person comes to the National Air and Space Museum and sees a sign that says we're closed due to the federal government shutdown.
How can you be closed? This is what I planned my whole vacation around.
I know. Well, I think the news media will make it pretty clear all over the country, when the government shuts down, that it will include us because I've had, you know, so many people ask about it. But in some cases -- and of course, we will put out our own news release but, in some cases, it'll just be a question of coming up and seeing a sign. And as I said, we really hope it doesn't happen, especially at this time of year.
Who are taxpayers likely to blame, Ed? Who did we blame the last time around?
Well, they'll blame -- Republicans last time is who got blamed. This time, if you look at the polling -- we did one this week with the Pew Research Center, and it divides pretty evenly, about 35-35 between President Obama and congressional Republicans, which is another reason why Congress and the White House don't want this to happen. It looks as if the blame may be shared equally. Whereas, last time, Republicans were the ones talking about this stuff and then got blamed.
Democrats have been generating it a little more to kind of scare it up. Republicans have been keeping their mouths shut. And the reason they tell us privately is because they figured, if we keep quiet and look like we're doing our job, maybe this time around, we won't get blamed. You know -- and President Obama, who, you know -- has only in the last six, you know, to eight months, really started talking seriously about spending cuts and other issues of that concern, doesn't come to this issue with as much credibility as Bill Clinton did back in '95, '96.
He'd already introduced his balanced budget plan. He had balanced budgets as a governor, and people knew that. You know, President Obama, when it comes to fiscal issues, doesn't have that practical experience and that reputation that was enjoyed by his predecessor.
On to the telephones again. Here is Steve in Potomac, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Yes. Good morning. Hey, Ed. One of the big differences between the shutdown in the Gingrich area and today is the large number of contractors who've seeped in really due to the nonstrategic way the Clinton-Gore and Congress downsized the government in '93 and '94. How many agencies have gotten a handle on the number of contractors and what they're doing, and how would that impact the shutdown? And just a brief example, when I worked in DOD last year, there were receptionists who were contractors. I mean, really, they sit in a lot more seats than people realize. Thank you.
Okay. Before Ed responds to that, Steve, I'm gonna put you on hold and go to Jack in Washington, D.C., who also has some experience with this. Jack, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
Yeah. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. Yeah. When I -- in '95, I was a contractor and we were either on fixed price or time and materials types of contracts. So we were permitted -- if we're time and materials, we were permitted to work overtime to make up for the time lost during the shutdown, and then fixed price, we got the full value of the contract at the time. And now, I'm a fed. So I see it again, potentially really hurting us in the long run because we've had to limit a lot of contracts to 40-hour maximum work weeks. And so the work is just gonna pile up.
And now, at FEMA, you know, something that I don't think people realize in a shutdown, a lot of the work that we do in terms of mitigation for disasters and having equipment and everything else ready for a disaster, that will all be put on hold. So, you know, God forbid something really serious should happen...
Here is Ed O'Keefe.
Yeah. And, you know, Kojo, you could spend days talking about this issue, and Linda will tell you, too, that over at the Smithsonian, it's a mix of federal employees and private contractors who do different kinds of work. This is one of the reasons why a shutdown this time around will be much different and probably not as big. It's because so many different elements of government services are now handled by contractors, especially when it comes to technology.
The IT support systems that you hear at the ads and you hear people talk about, you know? In the case of receptionists who are contractors, you should expect those people to stay home or they'll be told to go home. In the case of mitigation planning, you know, you might actually see those people stick around on the job because that is related somewhat to protection of life and property and you have an administration who's very serious about disaster preparedness and homeland security issues.
So yes, this is a, I think, an element of this that Washington understands better than the rest of the country that so many other people are impacted and would probably stay on the job because the contracting work they do is considered essential by federal agencies.
Linda Saint Thomas, I don't know how many contractors you have at the Smithsonian, but we got this e-mail from Linda who said, "While it is true that the federal government employees were eventually paid after the last shutdown, those of us who worked as contractors, concessionaires to the National Park Service and other agencies were forced to shut down our businesses and layoff all our employees for the period. Unlike federal government employees, no one received any pay." Is that the same prospect facing contractors this time?
Yes. The Smithsonian has -- about two-thirds of its workforce are federal employees, and that includes all of our maintenance and all of our security. So it certainly would make a difference here. The one-third, who are what we call trust fund employees or non-federal, work for our business enterprises operation, which runs the retail and the cafeterias, also runs Smithsonian Magazine and all of that operation. And it's also the people who are involved in fundraising and some other activities. But by and large, most of the employees here are federal.
Jack, thank you very much for your call. Steve, also, thank you very much for your call.
Thank you, Kojo.
We move on now to Pat in Fairfax, Va. Pat, your turn. Go ahead, please.
Yes. I'm always somewhat amazed by how much we take the federal employees, structure of people in this area, for granted. I think they're -- you certainly do have your distinction in a shutdown of people that stay on the job because they’re considered essential and people that go home. But, really, it's kind of a domino effect, and when you start pulling people out of the work place, it also affects the people who are going to stay and delivery of services. To me, the way we bash the people that are delivering our services is sort of analogous to the Tea Partiers that I see out there yelling for smaller government while their sitting in their Medicare-supplied wheelchair. And I'll take my answer off the air.
Ed, do you have an answer for Pat?
Well, I mean, this is part of the reason why you've heard Tea Party-backed freshmen lawmakers say they want to force the government into a shutdown. They wanna see and to be able to demonstrate to their constituents, these are the different services that perhaps we could do without. This is what government really could be at its most essential level. Many have said that they'd like to see that. Republican leadership says otherwise. They are -- remember, they've been around long enough to know that there are political consequences for allowing this to happen.
And, you know, I think -- I talked to some people who said, gosh, it's been 15, 16 years. You would've thought the country would've remembered how services were impacted last time. But it appears they haven't. How short their memory. And we know perhaps, if it does happen, they'll be a more serious conversation and realization to that again.
We got an e-mail from Leonardo in Washington, D.C. "Please mention that some free museums in D.C. like the National Building Museum where I volunteer, which has the best gift shop in the region, will remain open, because they do not receive appropriated funding from Congress. Also some non-profits, some of which provide functions that the government no longer does itself that do receive partial funding appropriated from Congress will encounter short-term funding issues and may have to cut services. A government shutdown could then affect some aspects of the private sector across the nation," which, Linda Saint Thomas, is one of the points that you were making.
Right, right. I think that, yes, there are other activities and other museums in Washington that are free. But I would say the biggest and most famous of the free things in Washington are the Smithsonian Museums on the Mall and the Washington Monument and the other monuments, such as the Jefferson. So I think that people do -- that coming to the Smithsonian Museums is part of your trip to the nation's capital. And so I do think it would be a big disappointment to visitors.
And the other caller is correct. Let's say the National Air and Space Museum has a McDonald's restaurant in it. Well, obviously, the McDonald's employees, they're not Smithsonian employees. But the people who work in McDonald's will not be coming to work, because that restaurant will not be open the whole -- when the whole building is closed. So that's true for all of our restaurant operations. So it does have an impact that is beyond just the museums. After all, the Smithsonian Museums are free to begin with, but...
Ed, here's an e-mail we got from Mike in D.C. that, I guess, is on the minds of a lot of people. "How does it save money to shut the government down, if they pay the employees when the shutdown is over?"
Because the lights are off, and, you know, the elevators aren't running and those other sort of operational things don't occur as much. But, yeah, I mean, retroactively, they will get paid. Their benefits continue. And that usually is the largest expense to the government.
Just like a government agency, the District of Columbia runs on a federal appropriation in spite of the fact that most of that appropriated money comes from city taxes. Services were affected in '95, but not apparently in 1996. Mayor Gray and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton are trying to work their way out. Ed, what do you know about the possibility of D.C. being shutdown?
Well, let's flash back to 1995. By furloughing 13,000 of its 39,000 workers back in November '95, the city saved about 1.2 million, but they had to cover the expense of the salaries of 26,000 others who stayed on the job. And that cost the city 4.4 million. They were later able to recoup those funds. But it would be a very significant hit to the District if they had to cover that short term, because just like any other city these days, it's suffering. The way it worked out in the second one as Congress realized, oh, shoot, we have to make sure that the city can actually function, the traffic lights work, et cetera.
So they had -- as part of the emergency appropriations and the accepted personnel legislation they passed, they included funding for the District to continue. Because in some cases, traffic lights that broke went unfixed, you know? Various offices that dealt with benefits closed. And there were people, obviously, impacted by that here in the city.
I guess Sterling would like to know what the exceptions are likely to be. This is his question, "In the event of a government shutdown, would mail service be shutdown as well? What about TSA at the airports? Will Amtrak service be disrupted or probably exempted?"
Amtrak -- U.S. postal service is exempted, because they are a self-funding agency. The only connection they have to the government is their mention in the constitution and the fact that they have to provide universal service. So the mail would still come, sleet and rain. A threat of shutdown, the appointed rounds will be completed. Amtrak is also a self-funding organization that would most likely continue. And, you know, other self-funding federal agencies like the U.S. Mint, for example, would continue making coins.
TSA is likely to continue operating as with the air traffic controllers, because they fall under that life and property exemption and they're part of the nation's national security infrastructure. Someone said to me that if the president really wanted to play hardball with Republicans, he would tell the air traffic controllers to stay home. Because if you do that, and you impact commerce and tourism in so many different ways.
Indeed. We got an e-mail from Jim who says, "I don't think your guests or listeners understand that the government workers who come to work during a shutdown will not get paid. They may get reimbursed after the shutdown is over, but there is no guarantee. One example," says Jim, "of what could happen but won't because they are essential is the air traffic control system. If all of the air traffic controllers went home during a shutdown, the entire air travel system would be shutdown like it was on 9/11. The economic impact would be enormous. This should be clearly stated to your audience, so they understand what the federal government does."
Well, there we go. For the second time, air traffic controllers will show up to work. And, yes, those that do report to work don't get paid, but they are required to show. And, you know, again, historically, Congress has retroactively paid everyone. Perhaps, there will a bit of a fight about that this time with the, sort of, fiscally conscious lawmakers. But we should believe that at some point they will get their pay.
Ed O'Keefe writes The Federal Eye column for The Washington Post. Ed O'Keefe, thank you for joining us.
Great to be with you.
Linda Saint Thomas is the chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. Linda Saint Thomas, thank you for joining us.
Thank you. And thank you, Ed.
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