Federal agencies preparing for shutdown, White House says

A 1996 shutdown, due to an impasse between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, closed the Washington Monument.
A 1996 shutdown, due to an impasse between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, closed the Washington Monument. (Dennis Cook)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Federal agencies are preparing to operate at reduced levels if a government shutdown occurs, but the Obama administration hopes to strike a deal with congressional Republicans to avoid one, the White House said Tuesday.

By March 4, lawmakers must pass a short-term resolution to continue funding the government, or President Obama and congressional leaders can strike a deal on how to fund government operations for the final seven months of fiscal 2011. Failing to do so would prompt at least a partial shutdown affecting various agencies and functions.

"There have been contingency plans for government shutdowns since 1980, and those plans are obviously updated accordingly, but they've been around for a long time," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. The White House hopes to reach an agreement with lawmakers soon, he said.

Federal agencies must maintain plans "for an orderly shutdown in the event of the absence of appropriations," according to Office of Management and Budget guidance issued each year to agency officials. The plans must include estimates of how long it would take agencies to complete a shutdown and the number of employees that would need to work during one, OMB said.

Under federal law, employees working through a shutdown must be engaged in military or law enforcement duties, provide medical care or protect lives and property. Some agencies may keep employees on the job if their compensation is paid for through a different appropriations process.

OMB would not provide details Tuesday of individual agency plans, but most workers might stay on the job if a shutdown occurs, according to partial data obtained by the Government Accountability Office following a November 1995 shutdown.

At that time, the departments of Commerce, Justice and State kept about 63 percent of their workers on the payroll. Just over 50 percent of Interior Department workers stayed on the job, as did 42 percent of employees at the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services, GAO said.

Ahead of potential cutbacks, the Social Security Administration plans to discuss the impact of a shutdown with union leaders next week.

Though Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has not made any decisions on furloughing workers, the agency wants to meet with union leaders "in the event that a furlough may become necessary," Jay Clary, the agency's acting associate commissioner for labor issues, told union leaders in a letter late last week.

The agency made about 4,800 employees work through the 1995 shutdown to ensure beneficiaries obtained their checks, according to a Congressional Research Service report. An additional 61,000 workers had to stay home, but officials later called some in to help process new claims.

"I don't know who might have to stay home this time," said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents SSA workers. The union is negotiating a new contract and also plans to devote next week's talks to potential budget cuts, he said.

Skwierczynski said Monday that the union is upset about the possibility of a furlough but that "we don't have a problem with the agency giving us a heads up."

"Hopefully, it won't happen," he added. "But if it does, we'll have an opportunity to negotiate a reasonable methodology."

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