The federal government is $1.6 million deeper in the hole than it would have been had it not closed down for the three-day Columbus Day weekend because of the budget impasse, according to a General Accounting Office study released yesterday.
Most of the $1.6 million loss was attributable to uncollected revenue and the costs of planning and carrying out the shutdown, according to the study.
The 14 executive departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, NASA and the Office of Personnel Management also told GAO it would cost $398 million to shut down the government for three days during the workweek.
"Playing chicken" by threatening to shut down the government costs "government employees and the community they live in," said Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), who requested the GAO study. "It cost the president over 10 points in the polls and it cost the American taxpayers money."
Experts across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. Treasury reaps no financial benefit when the government shuts down, as it must do if there is no spending authority -- either in the form of a temporary continuing resolution, such as the one in effect until 12:01 a.m. Thursday, or standard appropriations bills.
Even so, shutdowns, including the one earlier this month, have not really closed down the government. At most, 500,000 of 2.4 million civilian federal employees have been sent home during previous shutdowns. The rest were deemed "essential" by their departments and agencies.
Since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, Congress has passed and President Bush has signed three "continuing resolutions," stopgap funding measures giving the government authority to spend and borrow money for a limited period to keep the government running until there is a budget agreement.
In theory, the threat of a shutdown is supposed to be enough to force Congress, now Democratic-controlled, and the administration, now Republican, to focus on the budget problem and reach an agreement. Experts disagree, however, on whether the potential for disruption is sufficient to elicit that cooperation.
The extent a shutdown disrupts the federal government, federal workers and the public is not easy to assess. Part of the calculation is anecdotal: employees who spend time worrying about personal finances rather than doing their jobs or who say their morale has taken a bruising; Americans who have become incensed that the nation's parks, including the Washington Monument, were closed Columbus Day weekend because Congress and the president could not bridge their differences.
The GAO study offers a more concrete assessment of the damage.
Of the $1.6 million the government lost over the three-day weekend, about $926,000 was in administrative costs -- planning for a shutdown and keeping employees notified of developments. These are expenses departments otherwise would not have incurred.
The Energy Department calculated it spent $395,000 on administrative costs. The Labor Department reported its administrative costs were $300,697.
The Interior Department, which runs the national parks, the Smithsonian Institution and the monuments on the Mall, including the Washington Monument, estimated its net loss at $315,000.
Some departments and agencies offered incomplete explanations for the shutdown costs. The Defense Department did not provide any cost information, citing national security considerations.
Other departments, asked to explain any negative impact from the shutdown, gave the following examples:
The Department of Education said there were delays in the preparation of year-end financial reports.
The EPA noted that some work in an emissions-testing lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., was delayed.
The inspector general's office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was forced to reschedule a trial in Michigan because a special agent was unavailable to testify.
The State Department told the GAO that the department's "senior level management is besieged by the endless number of scenarios possible" and that "losses of productivity are widespread."
The Government Printing Office did not print the Federal Register.
The Library of Congress prohibited the 1,000 to 1,500 researchers who normally use the library from doing so.