Washingtonians worry about impact of looming government shutdown

Washington, a company town unlike any other in America, was on the verge of grinding to a standstill late Monday. And with the factory about to be shuttered, here’s what the dawn could bring: More than 700,000 federal workers idled in and around the District; battalions of frustrated tourists locked out of museums; rush-hour commutes that feel like Sunday morning and countless worried merchants wringing their hands.

The Capital of the Free World: Closed till further notice.

Immune from the worst of a recession that battered the rest of the nation in recent years, U.S. government employees in this U.S. government town know they’ll be disproportionately impactedif nonessential federal offices and programs are shut down at midnight in the spending impasse between Congress and the White House.

“I don’t do something that keeps people alive,” said NASA employee Victoria Friedensen, 57, walking on Capitol Hill in her orange workout jacket Monday before going to work. She’s a program executive, and she and others have been told they will have to stay home if the government closes.

Friedensen had been watching news of the stalemate closely, hoping for a breakthrough. “I don’t even think our BlackBerrys will work,” Friedensen said. “For one day, that will be great!”

Then it will be difficult. The Washington area could lose up to $200 million a day if the National Zoo, Smithsonian museums and other government-funded attractions are shuttered, authorities said.

When talk of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts first started, Friedensen and her husband began setting money aside. “So, we’re okay,” she said. “And our kids are grown.”

It’s much harder on some of her colleagues, especially those whose spouses also work for the federal government. Some people were already furloughed this year, when NASA made mandated spending cuts. It’s frustrating, she said, to watch the impasse.

“What if you already lost six days of your income? And now?”

Elerky Crosby, 66, a longtime National Institutes of Health employee, remembers the 1996 government shutdown, when she was classified as an essential worker. Now, as an administrative support employee who delivers charts to different buildings within NIH, she is among the 40,512 employees set to be furloughed .

“I’m scared to death,” she said.

Kevin Bondesen, 57, was expecting not to be allowed to work Tuesday. Only a few of his colleagues in human resources at the Department of Transportation will be needed to handle the administrative support and furlough notifications, he said.

In 30 years as a federal employee, Bondesen has fretted through his share of spending fights between lawmakers and the president. But this time it’s “very different,” he said, meaning the political polarization. “If nothing else, the last two, three days testify to that.”

He isn’t a partisan loyalist (“I consider myself a Christian first and foremost”) and said he only wants to keep working. He said, “I might do what I’ve never done in my life: Hold a sign in front of Congress that says, ‘You’re not doing your job; I deserve to be paid.’ ”

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said the District government will not close during a federal shutdown, meaning trash will be collected, permits and licenses will be issued and municipal offices will remain open.

“Unless somebody takes me out in handcuffs, I’m not shutting down anything,” the mayor said Saturday. The decision to remain open came after city lawyers Friday approved the use of a special reserve fund, totaling $144 million, to keep the city operational during a federal shutdown.

Separately, Gray has sought to designate all of the city’s 32,000 employees as exempt from shutdown furloughs — a decision that, if accepted by President Obama’s budget office, could render use of the reserve fund unnecessary.

The city Monday had yet to receive a response from the Obama administration on the move to declare all city employees exempt. Gray said he had spoken to Obama budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell about the matter but had gotten no indication of the administration’s posture.

Officials at the University of the District of Columbia were deliberating Monday whether to open the school during a government shutdown, a spokesman said. The university is funded in part by the District government, which depends on annual congressional appropriations. But the university is not a direct unit of the city government, so its Board of Trustees must decide how to handle the situation.

D.C. Superior Court planned to close some offices, including the marriage bureau, meaning that no marriage license applications would be processed and no courthouse weddings would be performed. Hearings, trials and mediations would be conducted as usual, but the child-care program normally available for children of jurors would not be operating.

On the Mall, tourists Monday hurried here and there, maps in hand, visiting as many museums as they could in a hurry, with the shutdown looming.

After spending the first part of the day at the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum, Hank and Lorraine Tessier, visiting from Alaska, were making phone calls to find out if Mount Vernon and the National Firearms Museum were open. “If they are, then we’re going to quickly rent a car and go out there,” Hank Tessier said.

Karina Iniguez, a language interpreter and translator from San Francisco, arrived in Washington on Sunday with her husband, Greg Patterson, for her first visit to the capital as a U.S. citizen. “The idea was to go through every door of every Smithsonian museum,” she said, pointing to a map with the museum locations circled.

“We’ve got to do as much as we can,” her husband had told her that morning before they got an early start.

Outside the Museum of Natural History, pedicab drivers shouted, telling passersby that this might be their last chance to get pedaled around to museums before the government shutdown. Joe Brophy, 25, general manager of National Pedicabs, said 60 to 70 percent of business comes from tourists, much of it on the Mall.

“If the museums are threatened . . . we’re going to see business shrivel,” he said. One driver, James Muwonge, 41, said business was unusually brisk Monday. “People are smart,” he said. “They’re getting it in before it shuts down.”

Economic consultant Matthew Denicola, 22, walking into the New York Avenue/Gallaudet Metro station Monday morning, said he will not be directly affected by a shutdown because he works in the private sector. But he sees the impact on his friends.

They graduated from Georgetown University recently but haven’t been able to find the government jobs they want — in the Senate, the State Department, the Defense Department — because of cuts. A shutdown will exacerbate matters for them.

Denicola said he stopped following news coverage of the impasse.

“I gave up on it. It’s all just people putting the country at risk for partisan politics. It’s absurd.”

Maggie Fazeli Fard, Donna St. George, Emma Brown, DeNeen Brown, Nick Anderson, Mike DeBonis, Keith Alexander, Dana Hedgpeth, Samantha Hogan, Samantha Ralphelson and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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