Shutdown leaves federal charity with uncertainties; Pentagon with hat in hand

Joe Davidson
October 10, 2013

It’s a sad day when the United States has to take charity to care for the families of fallen members of the military.

This partial government shutdown makes Uncle Sam another beggar on the street. It reduced him to going hat in hand to the Fisher House Foundation, which offered to provide the standard $100,000 death benefit to families.

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

Ironically, the Fisher House, which has worked with military families for 20 years, also receives donations from the Combined Federal Campaign. The campaign funnels charitable contributions from federal employees to more than 20,000 nonprofit organizations around the world.

Because of the shutdown, CFC may as well stand for Can’t Function Currently, just like many other government-related activities. It is regulated by the federal Office of Personnel Management. One government official who oversees CFC, among other duties, and is working because he is excepted from the shutdown furloughs, wouldn’t discuss the charity because it is not an excepted activity.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is “offended, outraged and embarrassed,” as well he should be at needing charity to meet Pentagon obligations. The government shutdown, he added, “has prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner.”

Fortunately, there are initial signs that an end to this madness might be approaching. House Republicans are backing away from their destructive, dead-end strategy. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday gave the Republican Party its lowest rating since the Journal began polling in 1989. Sanity does not yet prevail, though, and the CFC remains in limbo.

“We’re not sure how it’s going to turn out,” said Cindy Campbell, a Fisher House spokeswoman about donations this year. The Defense Department promised to reimburse the organization.

But will employees continue to donate during a period of perturbation?

That uncertainty is an issue for all CFC charities. The CFC money they are spending now in most cases comes from federal employee payroll check donations. The shutdown, however, has interrupted those checks. On Friday, many employees will be paid just half their regular amount, according to Steve Bauer, executive director of the Federal Employee Education & Assistance Fund, a CFC charity that provides financial assistance to feds in need.

His office has been inundated with calls from federal workers who he said are “in desperation of how to pay their bills.”

But FEEA can’t provide as much help as it did previously because it is largely tapped out as a result of this year’s sequestration budget cuts. They forced many feds to take pay cuts through unpaid leave days. For the first time in 27 years, FEEA has placed restrictions on the federal employees it helps because it too is in financial distress. Of some 200 people who applied for assistance since Sept. 1, FEEA has helped 12.

The current situation, Bauer said, is “a nightmare of gigantic proportions for folks and for us.”

The longer the shutdown, the greater the impact on CFC. Donations are generated through charity fairs and other workplace events held at agencies to encourage giving. The solicitation period runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 15, but it is suspended during the shutdown.

“It’s a real problem. It’s a serious issue,” said Kalman Stein, president and chief executive of EarthShare, a federation of environmental and conservation charities. EarthShare also administers the Combined Federal Campaign of the National Capital Area for 2013. The local effort is the nation’s largest CFC and one of the largest workplace giving operations anywhere.

“We’re in suspension,” he said. “We’ve been told not to do CFC activities.”

Though “federal employees are in­cred­ibly generous people,” Stein said, one way they “express their dissatisfaction” with workplace issues “is to cut CFC contributions.”

And feds have reason to be upset.

The shutdown has shut hundreds of thousands of federal employes out of work since Oct. 1. The House has voted to pay them, eventually, for the time they are missing. The Senate probably will too, but it hasn’t yet, leaving some uncertainty. This aggravating situation is in addition to three years of a freeze on their basic pay rates and the recent sequester furloughs.

There was a 10 percent dip after the shutdown of 1995-96, according to Stein. But that was not preceded by a pay freeze and furloughs, which could contribute to a cut in pledges this year.

When people get angry, Stein said, “they say ‘I’m canceling my CFC pledge.’”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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