Federal agencies, contractors preparing for government shutdown

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Federal agencies continued reviewing shutdown plans Wednesday in anticipation of a possible closure of the federal government that could begin as early as next week.

Most of this week's planning probably revolves around determining which employees would need to work, according to Barry Anderson, a budget expert who handled shutdown-related concerns for the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton-era closures.

A series of memos written by Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti in the closing days of Jimmy Carter's administration still dictate how agencies should make those determinations. Federal programs drawing funds from annual appropriations should continue to operate if there is a "reasonable and articulable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property," Civiletti wrote.

A senior State Department official said Wednesday that there are contingency plans for a shutdown but that there is a certain amount of flux involved. He declined to say how many employees are considered essential or non-essential.

"Who is an emergency person today may not be the same tomorrow. People who deal with Libya would not normally be emergency personnel. Today they're emergency. When the shutdown comes, if it comes, Libya may not be an emergency. It could be Xanadu, Shangri-la, whatever," the official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Officials at the National Science Foundation haven't determined who would work during a shutdown, but the agency's list of essential personnel "is likely to be a small percentage of our workforce," according to spokeswoman Maria Zacharias. The agency will publish contingency plans on its Web site once they are approved by the OMB, she said.

At the Education Department, "we're currently updating our plans," said spokesman Justin Hamilton, who provided no further details.

Spokesmen for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Labor Department declined to comment. The Food and Drug Administration - which regulates 25 percent of the economy, including most foods, all drugs and medical devices, and tobacco - referred questions about shutdown plans to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Chris Stenrud, an HHS spokesman, declined to discuss the FDA's shutdown strategy. "These plans are implemented at the discretion of OMB, which therefore makes any comment by us speculation," he said in an e-mail.

In 1995, agency officials mostly ignored the Carter-era guidelines, Anderson said. "When we first sent out messages to the agencies, their view was that virtually everybody was essential."

Anderson and John F. Cooney, another former OMB official who handled shutdown issues, shared their shutdown-era tales with more than 100 business leaders Wednesday at a meeting hosted by the Professional Services Council, a trade association representing mid-size contracting firms. The group called the meeting to help members determine what they should do to prepare if President Obama and Congress can't settle on plans to fund the government after March 4.

Federal agencies spent $535 billion in fiscal 2010 on government contracts, a $15 billion cut from the year before but well above levels spent in the 1990s. The government doesn't track the number of contractors used by agencies.

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