The Office of Special Counsel isn’t so special now.
Hallways are dark. Doors are closed. Trash baskets are empty.
Like agencies throughout the government, OSC is suffering during the partial government shutdown. A congressional budget impasse has left much of the government without money to function since midnight Monday.
OSC is a tiny agency, with about 110 staffers. That includes those in the rented headquarters on M Street NW in Washington and about two dozen in field offices in Dallas, Detroit and Oakland, Calif.
Only three people — all in the District — are working full time during the shutdown: Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel, and two presidential management fellows who are not paid with money appropriated by Congress. A few others come in part time to check mail for imminent safety, public health or national security issues or for other duties.
“It’s lonely,” Lerner said in her third-floor office Thursday. “It does not feel good.”
In one room with 16 desks, a lone staffer, John Young, was at work. A colleague had stepped out. “I feel lucky,” Young said.
The reception area, like other parts of the workplace, was quiet and empty. To gain entry, a visitor had to call Lerner on her cellphone, since the staffers usually at the front desk had been sent home.
Her staff, when allowed to work, is charged with protecting federal employees and job applicants from various prohibited personnel practices. That includes reprisals by managers against employees for whistleblowing activities. Among other services, the special counsel’s office is a place where government employees can report wrongdoing.
Lerner realizes that with clinical trials for new patients at the National Institutes of Health stopped, a food program for low-income women and children running out of money and veterans waiting for benefits, the role of her office isn’t necessarily the most critical of all government functions.
But this agency provides a case study of how the shutdown has decimated many agencies, delayed or denied services and put staffers out of work.
“This could not come at a worse time,” she said. “We’re already working at a bare-bones staff level.”
Thirty-seven pending cases deal with health and safety issues. That includes 19 quality-of-care matters at veterans hospitals; those cases include allegations of nurses improperly prescribing medications, doctors inappropriately signing for narcotics and the use of non-sterile equipment.
“We can’t complete our work on those cases,” she said. “We are at a standstill. This puts a wrench in our operations.”
The office also has several cases involving the improper use of overtime. Those allegations come from federal employees who, in a sense, are reporting against their own self-interest. They, too, could profit from the overtime abuse if they were the cheating kind.
“We have several of these cases right now we are just sitting on,” Lerner said. “Every day that we are closed means we are not working on these cases that can save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.”
Ironically, the shutdown started just as OSC ended a banner year.
It resolved 4,744 cases, “the most in agency history,” Lerner said. It also “achieved more positive outcomes for whistleblowers, federal employees and the merit system than any single year in OSC’s
“Our cost to process a case has dropped 40 percent in the last five fiscal years, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in terms of productivity,” she added. “In sum, we’re leaner, more efficient and more successful than at any point in this agency’s history.”
But staffers couldn’t fully revel in that success, because they had to prepare to shutdown.
“I really worry about how this will affect morale,” Lerner said.
She recalled overhearing a colleague’s comment during a phone conversation: “‘I feel so unappreciated.’ ”
“It just breaks your heart,” Lerner said.
She also worries about recruitment. OSC is staffed primarily with lawyers. This isn’t the best time for lawyers to be looking for work, but that doesn’t mean they have to put up with the nonsense the federal government is forcing on its employees.
The shutdown, with employees furloughed without wages (unless Congress decides to pay them), is on top of three unpaid leave days for OSC staffers this summer because of budget cuts and three years of a freeze on their basic pay rates.
“I still think it is a dream job,” Lerner said.
But the shutdown is a nightmare.
Previous columns by Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.