Folks who are really interested in saving money hope Monday's budget showdown isn't a repetition of Nov. 23, 1981, when a similar tiff produced a wacky one-day shutdown that wound up costing taxpayers more than $80 million.
If history repeats itself, Monday could be as confusing and costlier than the proposed furloughs that most have focused on. Furloughs, no matter how dumb, unfair or unnecessary, at least are orderly and minimize the impact on workers and services. What Monday could bring is a worse situation caused by "lapsed appropriations," meaning no budget, and no spending authority extension.
In the fall of 1981, the government had been without a budget for more than a year. Agencies were running under a continuing resolution. It let them function until Nov. 22, well past the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
Two days before the Monday deadline, Congress passed another continuing resolution. President Reagan vetoed it. That left the government without authority to spend money for non-emergency items.
During that weekend, federal officials pondered a Justice Department directive from the Carter era. It said in such a situation only essential employees could work and only at shutting down operations. Employees were told to report for work on Monday. Upon arrival at work, according to a report by the House Post Office-Civil Service Committee, 250,000 workers were immediately told to return home. An additional 300,000 were told to perform only essential office-shutdown tasks. Many of them went home at noon.
In some agencies all but a few employees were sent home. In others, only a token number were sent home. Some confused agencies did nothing. Examples:
The Interior Department on that goofy Monday sent most people home at 2 p.m.
Housing and Urban Development couldn't fathom the complex who-goes and who-stays rules. HUD, and the Energy Department, kept everybody at work.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commmission sent 1,570 workers home at 12:30 p.m. and kept a shutdown crew of 68 on duty. FERC figures it spent $6,000 on the shutdown and paid $98,000 in salary to employees who were not allowed to work.
The Department of Commerce furloughed 18,333 employees (49 percent of its work force) at noon. The rest stayed to close down.
The Federal Home Loan Bank Board furloughed 262 staff members at noon that Monday. It told the committee its shutdown activities cost about $1,000 and salaries paid to workers who didn't work totaled $8,397.65.
Late Monday, Reagan signed a continuing resolution allowing agencies that closed Monday to reopen Tuesday. Employees who had been furloughed were paid because the order was signed the same day.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) estimated "an enormous amount of taxpayers' money, perhaps $82 million to $88 million" was wasted by the 1981 Monday shutdown. Its administrative costs were $5.5 million, she said, plus $9 million paid to workers who didn't (couldn't) work.
Some people believe the government can't afford another such economy-driven shutdown.