“We wanted to make sure there was no confusion before people left for the holidays that they should come back to work,” said GAO spokesman Charles Young.
Outside the Capital Beltway, the budget battle loomed less large among federal employees.
“Once in a blue moon, we’ll exchange barbs and quips about the situation,” said Timothy Flavin, who handles disability claim appeals for the Social Security Administration in Rochester, N.Y. “They’re either apathetic, or they’re afraid to say anything,” he said of his colleagues.
Even if there is no last-minute agreement, Jan. 2 would not be doomsday because some cuts could be put off until later in the fiscal year. Most agencies would continue spending, but with caution, eliminating travel and training programs and slowing or halting hiring. Overtime would be phased out, as would temporary help. Managers may have to decide whom to furlough and for how long.
The Budget and Control Act of 2011 gives agencies 30 days to figure out exactly how they would juggle their finances, down to specific contracts and programs that would be eliminated. Union officials say they would demand bargaining over furloughs and possible layoffs. Unions would also want to bargain over the use of contractors to ensure they’re cut before federal employees.
Managers say that without knowing how long the cuts will be in effect, they can’t make smart decisions.
“As a manager, you’re effectively placing bets,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents 7,300 top career executives in the government. “Do I start this contract or not start it? Let this vendor go?” she asked. “I stop training, but what if they don’t have that opportunity for a year? At what point do I say, ‘You’re not going’? ”
The Office of Management and Budget has instructed managers to consider furloughs as a last resort. But for agencies where labor makes up most of the budget, they would be hard to avoid.
“Employees understand that they will still be working on January 2nd,” said Patty Viers, a customer account specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency and president of Local 1148 of the American Federation of Government Employees. “But they’re getting more and more concerned about what’s going to happen in three months.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.