On Monday, while the rest of the government acted relieved that Congress had passed a stopgap funding measure the previous day to keep things running as usual, the U.S. Customs Service ran panicked in the opposite direction.
The service laid off 1,500 contract employees, cut out overtime for most regular customs inspectors, canceled $10 million in contracts and eliminated supply and equipment purchases, according to Customs Commissioner Carol B. Hallett.
Hallett instructed employees in the field to turn off all cellular telephones the service owns, to stop using Express Mail and to eliminate external printing costs, except printing of notices related to budget cuts, according to a Customs Service directive.
Customs employees in Texas said at least one commercial truck cargo inspection center along the U.S.-Mexico border was closed Monday night and another inspector in New Orleans said three ships were not boarded for inspection there due to the cuts in overtime. Hallett said passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport had to wait about an hour longer to get through Customs and cargo inspection there was slow by several hours.
"It is a major problem," she said on Tuesday. "We are crossing our fingers."
The problem, Hallett said, was that the Office of Management and Budget, which determined how much money the agency would get to run on this week, had shorted her $2 million.
Yesterday morning, OMB did its math over again and the problem disappeared.
"I think it was one of these human errors that happened because someone didn't think about the impact," Hallett said yesterday.
According to her, OMB calculated the amount of money Customs would have to pay employees and expenses based on a five-day work week, which most agencies use. But Customs employees, whose main job is to check passengers and merchandise coming into the United States by land, air and sea, works seven days a week.
So instead of the $13.7 million it needs to pay salaries each week, OMB gave Customs only $11.1 million. The Treasury Department immediately appealed the decision and yesterday OMB came back with the correct amount.
The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment.
To avoid a government shut down for lack of funds and across-the-board spending cuts called for in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, Congress passed a "continuing resolution" Sunday that gives government the authority to borrow more money to keep itself running until midnight Friday.
By then Congress must either adopt a budget or pass another "continuing resolution" to avert a shutdown and furloughs.
"For all intents and purposes," said Hallett, "we're back to normal until Friday night at midnight."