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Federal agencies, contractors preparing for government shutdown

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 8:13 PM

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.

Though federal employees earned retroactive pay for time lost during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Congress has never considered repaying contractors.

"It's never happened," Cooney said. "You will have to make a business decision" about repaying them, he added.

"You will find that there is a maze" of issues to consider, Cooney warned. For example: Will agencies pay unionized workers who didn't receive the mandated two weeks' notice before a furlough? Should workers and contractors on overseas assignments fly back or stay put? And perhaps most difficult, which employees should report for work, and who should stay home?

"The plans range all over the map," Cooney said, and though some agencies keep detailed plans on file, "it's a constantly evolving process" that won't be finalized until absolutely necessary.

Based on previous shutdowns, Anderson and Cooney agreed that any new shutdown would probably occur in one of two ways.

A "soft shutdown" would give Obama breathing room to continue negotiating with Congress. Workers might report for work "but do nothing productive," Cooney said. "They're told to clean up their desks, clean up their equipment, do what they need to do in order to improve the function of the mission, but not deliver any services."

A more severe "hard shutdown" would lead to furloughs like the ones in 1995 and 1996, he said. It would also severely affect contractors.

"Your workforce may show up and be barred from the building," Cooney told the crowd. "If shutdowns are coming, you'll need to have some kind of plan to notify them like you do on snow days. OMB often won't pass the word until late in the evening. You're going to need some kind of instantaneous communication."

Most of all, contractors may want to settle any outstanding bills before March 4. "Do it now," Anderson said. "Don't put off if you have issues, if you have outstanding debt."

Staff writers Nick Anderson, Lindsey Layton, Lisa Rein, Mary Beth Sheridan and Brian Vastag contributed to this report.

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