How a shutdown would squeeze the White House

September 30, 2013
President Barack Obama meets with senior staff in Chief of Staff Denis McDonough's office in the West Wing of the White House, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama meets with senior staff in Chief of Staff Denis McDonough's office in the West Wing of the White House, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Given the prestige of the White House within the federal hierarchy, one might assume that under a scenario in which only essential federal employees would remain on the job during a government shutdown, everyone working directly for the president would continue to report for work.

But a shutdown would transform the workings of the president's inner sanctum, idling three-quarters of its workforce. In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Katy Kale, assistant to the president for management and administration, explained how "approximately 436 employees will be designated as excepted or exempt to perform excepted functions." The remaining 1,265 White House employees "will be placed in furlough status once they have concluded activities necessary to shut down their offices."

So what constitutes "minimal staffing" for the president so he can carry out "constitutional duties" including budget negotiations with Congress? A total of 129, it turns out, although Kale wrote that "other staff may be called in as necessary to assist in these functions."

What about maintaining the executive residence? Fifteen employees "will be required to provide minimum maintenance and support."

The president pretends to be caught in Spider-Man's web as he greets Nicholas Tamarin, 3, just outside the Oval Office on Oct. 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Obama pretends to be caught in Spider-Man's web as he greets Nicholas Tamarin, 3, just outside the Oval Office on Oct. 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Vice President Biden would have to do with less: He would get a staff of 12 to fulfill his constitutional obligations, and just one employee for his residence.

The largest remaining workforce outside President Obama's immediate staff would be OMB, with 118; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative would have 61; and the national security staff would be third, with 42. The Office of Administration -- which handles everything from the White House's mail to its computers -- would keep 36 employees on hand. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, by contrast, would have eight.

Although the ongoing budget battle has imperiled the economy, the Council of Economic Advisers would have a skeleton crew of four: its chairman, two members and one staff member. The Council on Environmental Quality would have the smallest staff, with just three employees, while the Office of Science and Technology Policy would have seven ready to provide "scientific and technical advice that may be needed in a time of crises or emergency to protect life and property."

The letter doesn't say what role White House interns would play during a shutdown. Although that may seem like a minor matter, it made a difference during a previous shutdown, in November 1995, when intern Monica Lewinsky remained on the job and began an affair with President Bill Clinton. Luckily, no one is looking for history to repeat itself on that front.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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