The Bush administration's decision to shut down most of the federal government Friday in honor of the late Ronald Reagan was in keeping with a tradition that stretches back more than 50 years. But it was also one that cost taxpayers millions of dollars in government employee wages.
After Reagan's death June 5, President Bush announced that most of the government would close June 11 for a national day of mourning. The former president's funeral service was Friday, at Washington National Cathedral.
The Bush directive affected federal employees across the country and around the globe, except for some in agencies whose missions are considered critical to national security and other essential business, such as the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Employees who were given the day off will receive their regular pay, while those who were required to work will receive "premium" pay, which, in many cases, amounts to 150 percent of their regular daily wages.
The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget declined to estimate how much the shutdown might cost taxpayers. A spokesman for the OPM said he could not calculate the cost because he did not know how many employees were given the day off. Individual agency heads, he said, had the discretion to decide which employees needed to report for work.
But OPM spokesman Michael Orenstein said the government employs about 1.8 million civilians -- not including postal workers -- at a daily payroll cost of about $423 million. He said the one-day cost will probably exceed that figure because an indeterminate number of federal employees will receive the premium pay.
Orenstein referred questions as to how many employees were required to report for work Friday to individual agencies. Several departments said they did not know how many people came in. A Defense Department spokesman said individual offices decided which employees had to report for work. But he said a "majority" of the 23,000 civilian and military employees at the Pentagon were given the day off.
Katie Mynster, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, declined to estimate how many of its 180,000 employees worked.
"I don't know how many people are taking the day off," she said. "Staffing decisions have been left to the discretion of the managers."
Similarly, a spokesman for the State Department said that although the "majority" of its employees were given the day off, he could not say how many of its 18,000 American employees worldwide reported for work.
The government shutdown has become a traditional honor for fallen presidents over the past half-century.
During World War II, Harry S. Truman closed the government's doors to mark the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The government was shut again in 1963 to mark John F. Kennedy's death. Richard M. Nixon closed the government three times in honor of the deaths of Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson. More recently, Bill Clinton closed the government in honor of Nixon's death in 1994.
In his executive order issued last week, Bush said the closure was a "mark of respect for Ronald Reagan."
But Paul Light, an expert in governmental affairs at New York University, said it was ironic that the administration closed the government for Reagan. "He was relentless in his criticism of fraud, waste and abuse in government and would have looked on a day off for his funeral as a remarkable waste of taxpayer money," Light said.