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The Ripple Effect: Empty Halls, Lost Money, Discontent

By David Montgomery
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 10:20 AM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: November 15, 1995, Wednesday, Final Edition

They read the official bad news in a blizzard of computer messages that hit around 9:30 a.m. yesterday. By noon they were gone: 150,000 government workers streaming out of office buildings and laboratories across the area on the day the federal factories closed in this company town.

Some effects of the first government shutdown in five years could be measured immediately: The government lost money as it paid to turn off the lights and close parks. Security guards and computer babysitters were the only people left in once-teeming federal complexes. Downtown hotels and lunch counters around federal installations lost business. More than 4,000 ticket holders to the biggest show of Johannes Vermeer's painting in three centuries got locked out of the National Gallery of Art.

The budget impasse is affecting an additional 650,000 federal workers across the country in places as varied as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Texas and the Statue of Liberty in New York. The computer system at the Library of Congress, which has 1 million transactions a day, went off line as soon as official word of the shutdown arrived. Each day the government is shut down, about 22,000 people will be unable to get passports and 28,000 won't be able to apply for Social Security benefits.

Companies that do business with the government will face payment delays. Several federal agencies faxed "stop work" orders to contractors here and across the country, bringing many programs to a halt and phasing others down to minimum levels.

"I think it's just a waste; it's just a waste," Pat Dever, an information management specialist at the Department of Education, said of the nation's penchant for government shutdowns. "It's a game we've played before. It's an American folkway."

In downtown Washington, the furloughed masses began filling Metro's Smithsonian station, looking for a ride home, just minutes after the end of the morning rush hour that had brought them to work.

A woman heading from her office to the train platform repeatedly muttered under her breath, "This is stupid; this is stupid."

Besides the 150,000 "nonessential" federal employees who were sent home, uncertain whether they would be paid on time, if at all, many thousands of contract employees dependent on federal dollars were dismissed temporarily from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and from other government facilities.

Being labled nonessential might have pricked a fragile ego or two, but Coriolana Simon would have none of it, as she left her desk at the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's like a blood type," she said of nonessential status. "Doesn't make any difference."

Simon blamed the shutdown on "a bunch of male egos. Pretty much on both sides."

Attorneys for the 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees filed a lawsuit late yesterday, asking a federal judge to stop more than a dozen agencies from making employees who are considered essential work without pay.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan scheduled a hearing for tomorrow. In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said the state will spend $ 1.4 million a day during the shutdown to pay the salaries of 9,680 state government workers who are paid with federal funds, including those who work in the state's unemployment insurance office, which is gearing up to receive applications from federal workers. He said congressional leaders have indicated the state will be reimbursed.

A spokesman for Virginia Gov. George Allen (R) said state employees paid with federal funds will continue to work and be paid, out of state funds if necessary.

On the walls of the emptying federal offices were peppy slogans for the Combined Federal Campaign, raising funds for charities. November is a crucial fund-raising month. Some workers said that if the shutdown lasts too long, they would have trouble making ends meet and giving to others, a fear echoed by officials of one charity yesterday.

Shutting down the government "would have a devastating impact. What does this do to the psychology of giving when people are facing days unpaid?" said Jim Graham, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the largest provider of AIDS services in the Washington area.

The many people who work with government agencies were out of luck yesterday. Henry Goldberg, a lawyer who practices before the Federal Communications Commission, dialed an FCC staff member yesterday morning, thinking that he'd beaten the closure deadline by a few minutes. Instead, Goldberg recalled, he was greeted by a voice-mail message that said, "We are closing down. Don't even leave a message."

At the massive federal complex on Suitland Parkway in Prince George's County yesterday, it could have been the morning before a college spring break as thousands of restless employees of the U.S. Census Bureau and other Commerce Department agencies waited three hours for word that they could go home.

They wandered the hallways in sweat suits and jeans, made last-minute stops at the Census Credit Union and talked in the cafeteria about virtually everything except work.

Then furlough letters in white business-size envelopes began to reach the Census employees, one department at a time. "Here's yours, hon," someone called out from an office on the second floor.

"Happy no pay day," one Census worker called to a hallway that was beginning to fill with workers who had been told to leave.

Outside Federal Aviation Administration headquarters on Independence Avenue SW, Bonnie Richards-Ryan was taking a cigarette break with a colleague in the cold, drizzly morning. She and her colleague were two of the few, the proud, the essential: Her duty yesterday was to hand out furlough slips to her fellow workers.

"This whole thing sucks -- and you can quote me on that," said Richards-Ryan, a program analyst.

At the Department of Education on Maryland Avenue SW, at 12:30 p.m. sharp, chief of security Vic Ayala dispatched patrols to seek out any dedicated nonessential employees who were reluctant to leave the building. No volunteer work allowed, Ayala said. That's what happens when the government closes, he shrugged.

Education personnel worker Alexander B. Hamilton, 39, didn't have to be told. Upon receipt of his furlough notice, he changed into black tights and a red windbreaker and jumped on his mountain bike: He had lined up work with a courier service to tide him over during the shutdown.

"I'm not going to let Congress or Capitol Hill decide whether I'll be paid or not," Hamilton said. "They can play God with other people's lives, not mine."

Hallways and offices were unusually quiet at the Quantico Marine Corp Base in Prince William County, where more than three-quarters of the bases's 2,800 civilian employees were sent home.

"It stinks," sighed Demetria Thomas as she was handed an official notice that she and her three co-workers who run Quantico's Career Resource Center were on leave.

"We have people in this office with kids in college and spouses who are ill and mortgages to pay," said Thomas, 50, who was considering a stop at the local unemployment office before heading home. "This is going to hit some of us really hard in the pocketbook."

Although that sentiment was common yesterday, it's not certain that federal workers will lose any money, particularly if the shutdown is resolved within a few days. Federal workers are paid on a two-week cycle, and most got paychecks last week, according to officials at the Office of Personnel Management. Both Republican congressional leaders and President Clinton have said workers will get paid retroactively. If the two sides can resolve their differences before next week's checks are due, there should be little effect on employees' pay.

Not all federal agencies were shuttered. The U.S. Mint, which finances its operations through a special fund, had all four of its production facilities running. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing also reported it had a full crew on duty at its 14th Street plant and was expecting the usual daily output: 22.5 million new pieces of currency.

All 12,200 Washington area employees of the Department of Agriculture stayed at the office, because Clinton already had signed the agency's appropriations bill. "It's not exactly business as usual around here," said Greg Smith, of the USDA Forest Service, at 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW. "It's a little quieter. We work with other agencies, such as the Department of the Interior,"which had closed up shop.

Some work must go on, no matter what.

That includes feeding Hsing-Hsing, the 24-year-old giant panda, and the other animals at the National Zoo, which was closed. Brenda Morgan, the panda's keeper, fits the nation's definition of essential.

"I just want him to be happy," Morgan said. "I cut the bottom off his carrots, and I cook the sweet potatoes. I do anything I can do to make him happy."

The following staff writers contributed to this report: Charles Babington

Stephen Barr, D'Vera Cohn, Albert B. Crenshaw, Anthony Faiola, Stephen P. Fehr,

Amy Goldstein, Bradley Graham, Charles W. Hall, Marianne Kyriakos, Toni Locy,

Vernon Loeb, Cindy Loose, Leef Smith, Jackie Spinner, Saundra Torry and Linda

Wheeler.

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