Shutdown would corrode our view of government


The Capitol Dome is silhouetted by the sunrise, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Joe Davidson
Columnist September 19, 2013

House Republicans are on the march.

Their plan to tie a temporary funding measure to abolishing Obamacare again puts the nation on a collision course that could lead to a partial shutdown of government services.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

For a political party intent on cutting government, undermining it, as a shutdown would do and as the budget cuts known as sequestration have done, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But while this approach to governing might cheer the GOP base, it also can have a corrosive effect on the public’s view of government and certainly a negative impact on government employees.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health-care law,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said Wednesday. “This week, the House will pass a CR [continuing resolution] that locks the sequester savings in and defunds Obamacare.”

Never mind that President Obama was reelected after the Affordable Care Act became law in his first term.

Never mind that voters kept him in office even though Republicans used the law as their main weapon against him.

Never mind that the Supreme Court upheld the law.

“I think it is reckless hostage-taking,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

The Democratic-controlled Senate will reject the House bill. If Republicans cling to ideological purity, a partial shutdown will result.

Despite Boehner’s call to repeal the health-care law, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said he thinks there will be an effort to delay implementation of it for a year.

“I think that’s reasonable,” Wolf said.

But that’s not what Boehner’s statement said.

“This law is a train wreck,” according to the Boehner.

The true train wreck is a method of governing that repeatedly places the citizens and their employees at risk.

“What we now have,” Obama said after Boehner spoke, is an “ideological fight that’s been mounted in the House of Representatives that says we’re not going to pass a budget and we will threaten a government shutdown unless we repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

The GOP’s laser focus on destroying Obamacare and the budget crisis that would be incited undermines confidence in government.

The impact of the GOP’s strategy on taxpayers and federal employees amounts to collateral damage in the battle to forge party purity.

A Congressional Research Service report in August identified some of the activities and services that were hit by previous shutdowns:

●●The National Institutes of Health did not accept new patients for clinical research.

●The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped disease surveillance.

●Health care and other services for veterans were curtailed.

●Recruitment by federal law enforcement agencies halted.

●Border Patrol agencies’ hiring was placed on hold.

●National parks closed, as did museums and monuments.

●About 200,000 applications for U.S. passports were delayed, and up to 30,000 applications for visas to the United States went unprocessed each day.

But not all of government would close, and not all federal employees would lose pay.

If history is a guide — and that’s not a certainty — about 800,000 employees would be furloughed.

That figure comes from the five-day shutdown in November 1995. There were about 2 million federal employees then, approximately the same as today. So if a shutdown comes, many — perhaps most — feds would continue working.

Agency leaders were told Tuesday to “ensure that only those activities that are ‘excepted’ . . . would continue to be performed,” according to a memo sent by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia M. Burwell.

Quite a few employees are considered excepted.

“Several types of executive branch officials and employees are not subject to furlough.” says the CRS report. Quoting Office of Personnel Management guidance on shutdowns, the CRS said excepted employees work through shutdowns “because they are performing work that, by law, may continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations.”

According to the CRS, operations that would continue during a shutdown include national security, payment of benefits, medical care, food and drug safety, air traffic control, border protection, care of prisoners, law enforcement, emergency and disaster assistance, protection of federal facilities, tax collection, maintenance of the power distribution system, and preservation of the money and banking system.

Despite everything that would continue, agencies must take time to prepare for the activities that would not.

“Agencies making shutdown plans is a huge waste of time and energy,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “All of that is so distracting and counterproductive.”

Two things the Republican strategy is producing now: uncertainty and anxiety.

Said Obama: “That can’t be a recipe for government.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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