Decoding the jargon of a government shutdown

October 2, 2013

It’s day two of a partial government shutdown that may not end for a while, and the daily tedium of Congress usually witnessed only by people who are paid to watch is in full view for an estimated 800,000 furloughed federal workers and, say, anybody interested in visiting Yosemite.

Because more folks than usual are paying attention, we thought we’d put together a short guide to some of the jargon you may be hearing or reading.

Conference committee -- The latest GOP effort to fund the government and end the shutdown comes in the form of a request by House Republicans to form what’s called a conference committee with the Senate. In such a committee, members of both parties from both the House and Senate could hash out their differences and, in theory, agree on a way to end the shutdown.

House Speaker John Boehner appointed Republican conferees to the committee, but Senate Democrats didn’t bite.

"We will not go to conference with a gun to our head," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.

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Continuing resolution -- Under a perfectly functioning system, lawmakers would fund the government each year by drafting and passing an annual budget for the president to sign. But the Senate hasn’t passed a budget since 2009, so the government has been funded in short spurts using what are called continuing resolutions, or CRs.

Any fix that Democrats and Republicans may agree on to end the shutdown will be a CR, one that will expire either in November or December -- in other words, one that guarantees the debate over government spending will continue indefinitely.

Clean continuing resolution -- Democrats are calling on House Republicans to pass what’s been dubbed a “clean” CR, which is one that would fund the government without attaching “dirty” things like tax repeals or a delay of the Affordable Care Act.

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The Vitter amendment -- Many Republicans want any CR they pass to include what’s known as the Vitter amendment.

Vitter is Sen. David Vitter, a conservative Republican from Louisiana. His amendment would end the employer health-care contribution for members of Congress and their staffs, leaving them to shoulder the full cost of their health insurance coverage.

Vitter and his Republican colleagues argue that ordinary Americans who sign up for Obamacare won’t get any subsidies, so Hill employees shouldn’t get them, either. Democrats counter that Hill staffers already had health insurance with employer contributions but were forced into Obamacare’s health exchanges by a Republican amendment.

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Furlough – In the context of a government shutdown, a furlough is ordered when funding for a government agency or office is not appropriated by the beginning of the fiscal year. Furloughed employees are prohibited by law from working and are sometimes not paid for the time they were unable to work.

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The distinction between how your agency’s manager defines your role at work is the difference between whether you’ll be paid during a government shutdown or forced to take an unpaid vacation.

“Essential” and “excepted” employees -- Shutdown is somewhat of a misnomer when you consider the fact that over 1.3 million federal employees are working through it. That’s 63 percent of the federal workforce, and by law they must be paid -- eventually. They just don’t have to be paid on time. These employees are defined by the Office of Management and Budget as “excepted” from furloughs. The informal usage for this status has been “essential,” but ultimately, someone wised up and figured out that that term was insulting.

“Non-excepted” and “non-essential" employees – These are the 37 percent of the federal workforce who have been furloughed, and for whom it will take an act of Congress to get paid for their time out of the office. In the past, Congress has voted to have these workers paid. However, given the toxic nature of things in Washington these days, there’s no guarantee that will be the case this time. Although there already is a bill on Capitol Hill supporting payment.

“Exempted” employees -- Employees not subject to a shutdown furlough because they work in functions not affected by an appropriations lapse. These include members of the armed forces and postal service workers.

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