Was it a bad call to open federal offices in the snowy, slushy, slippery Washington area yesterday? Probably.
Federal employees, perhaps more than other workers, rely on mass transit and carpools to get to work. For decades, through the use of transit subsidies and parking restrictions, agencies have steered federal employees toward public transportation. Today, they make up 48 percent of Metro's rush-hour riders.
Yesterday, countless federal employees, like other commuters, spent an extra hour or two getting to work. It was a mess, several dozen federal employees said in e-mails, telephone calls and during a discussion on washingtonpost.com.
Metro warned federal and local officials Tuesday that it would not be able to offer normal service for the week's first real workday. While significantly fewer people rode the subway yesterday morning, trains were jammed and people were left waiting on platforms. Roads were jammed, too, partly because more cars were squeezed into single, snow-free lanes.
In theory, all workers -- public and private -- should be expected to show up for work as soon as they can dig out. It also seems reasonable to believe that the region's largest employer -- the federal government -- plays a special role and needs to balance its interests against those of the larger community.
But the government's size -- and its impact -- are not the foremost concerns at the Office of Personnel Management.
"It was absolutely the right call," Scott Hatch, OPM's communications director, said when asked about the decision to open the government yesterday and give "unscheduled leave" to employees unable to make it in.
"If supermarkets and pharmacies and video stores can open, then the federal government of the United States should be opened. Unequivocably," Hatch said.
Federal offices in the Washington area shut down Tuesday, following the weekend storm, because snow crews needed time to dig out the area. But yesterday was different, Hatch said.
"Do you close the federal government . . . until every spot of snow is off every sidewalk? That is unreasonable," he said.
Hatch serves as OPM's snow czar. On Tuesday, he said, he talked to 25 to 30 representatives of city and county governments, state transportation departments and the National Weather Service.
He also participated in a teleconference call with several dozen officials sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He made computer checks to get the latest information on interstate travel and weather forecasts.
By mid-afternoon, he had a bundle of information to relay to OPM Director Kay Coles James. "She sizes things up and makes the decision," Hatch said.
For today, James has decided that the government will be open for business as usual, with all hands reporting to work on time.
G Fund Investment
To avoid busting the national debt ceiling, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow informed congressional leaders yesterday that he plans to curb investments in the G Fund of the Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement savings program for federal employees.
Snow said he "will be unable to fully invest the Government Securities Investment Fund . . . in special interest-bearing treasury securities," because he expects the Treasury to bump up against the statutory debt limit of $5.6 trillion as early as today.
At the end of last year, the G Fund totaled more than $49 billion. The fund is available only to TSP participants and never loses money. Last year, it provided a 5 percent rate of return.
The Bush administration has had to suspend investments in the G Fund before. When the first round of political bickering began last year on raising the debt ceiling, investments were suspended. Ordinarily the fund is invested in interest-bearing federal securities that, just like savings bonds or Treasury bills, are defined as public debt. It matures and is reinvested daily.
In his letter to lawmakers, Snow said: "G Fund beneficiaries are fully protected and will suffer no adverse consequences from this action. The statute ensures that once the secretary of the Treasury can make the G Fund whole without exceeding the public debt limit, he is to do so."
That means "full and automatic restoration of any interest that would have been credited to the fund," Snow said.
Stephen Barr's e-mail address is email@example.com.