White House preparing for shutdown if deal can't be reached

With the first government shutdown in 15 years looming as a real possibility, the White House, no matter what it says, will need to prepare.

The Obama administration has been adamant that a shutdown can be avoided and that a deal can still be reached. Congressional lawmakers are still haggling over passing a continuing resolution (CR) that would fund the government beyond March 4, when the current CR expires.

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“All four leaders of Congress, leaders of the House, leaders of the Senate, have expressed their confidence that we can work this out before March 4, and we believe we can,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

But as the window for reaching an agreement shrinks, the likelihood the administration will need to prepare for a shutdown increases.

The congressional schedule leaves roughly four days, during the week of Feb. 28, for Congress to craft a package it can agree on, and one that the president will sign, before the current CR expires.

Since 1980, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has required all federal agencies to establish shutdown contingency plans, including how long it would take to shut down the agency and the number of employees that would keep working in the absence of appropriations.

OMB policy states that the office will monitor the appropriations process, and will notify agencies if they need to begin their shutdown plans, which are not available to the public.

On Nov. 9, 1995, less than a week before the first government shutdown of his tenure, President Clinton ordered federal agencies to begin preparing for the event. The Obama administration has yet to make such an announcement.

Although the administration is tight-lipped about what exactly might happen during a shutdown, the last series of government shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996, provides clues as to what to expect. 

When the Clinton-GOP standoff led to shutdowns, the public felt the impact in a variety of ways. All 368 national parks, museums and monuments were closed, and roughly 200,000 passport applications went untouched, according to a September 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Veterans’ benefit checks were delayed and new Social Security claims were not registered.

An estimated 800,000 federal employees were furloughed for five days in 1995. A second shutdown weeks later, in 1996, after some short-term funding bills were passed, resulted in the three-week furlough of another 284,000 employees.

But those measures occurred a decade and a half ago, and the potential first shutdown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would affect a government that looks different in many ways from the one helmed by Clinton.

In 1996, the executive branch reported 1.9 million federal employees, excluding the Postal Service. By 2010, that number had climbed to 2.1 million, according to the president’s fiscal 2012 budget request.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created after the Sept. 11 attacks, did not exist the last time the government came to a halt. DHS employs more than  230,000 people, and it is not clear how many of these would remain unscathed during a government shutdown. DHS employees who play key roles in national security matters would stay on, but the question of where the line gets drawn separating essential from non-essential is fuzzy.

OMB states that during a shutdown, certain employees can continue to work, including members of the military and law enforcement, or individuals involved in the direct delivery of healthcare. Employees paid with money separate from appropriations can also keep working.

In addition, agencies can keep on some employees who do not meet those specific exemptions, provided they are needed to “protect life and property,” according to OMB.

In a 1981 memo, then-OMB Director David Stockman spelled out several examples of employees who might meet that latter qualification. He listed air traffic controllers, public health officials and prison guards among several candidates, as well as employees who play a key role in the nation’s power distribution system or in guarding its borders or federal facilities.

There are few hard and fast rules for determining which employees need to stay on during a shutdown. During the 1996 standoff, the Social Security Administration (SSA) initially kept 4,780 employees on, because they were in positions necessary to ensure that various benefits, including Social Security, continued to be paid. The remaining 61,415 employees were furloughed, according to the CRS report.

However, the SSA realized shortly afterward that it lacked the manpower to answer phone calls from customers needing new cards or requesting that their files be changed to reflect a new address for benefit checks. Another 49,715 employees were brought back to help run the agency.

On Saturday, House Republicans hailed the passage of a CR that would cut at least $61 billion in federal spending when compared to 2010 levels. However, Senate Democrats, who still control the upper chamber, have shown little interest in taking up the measure, and are instead pushing for a package that would continue spending at current levels. And President Obama has already announced he would veto the House package if it made it to his desk.

Lawmakers have insisted they want to avoid a shutdown, but publicly there are few signs of flinching from either end. Republicans have said a short-term spending measure could prevent a shutdown if a broader agreement proves elusive, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Feb. 17 that he would reject any package that did not include spending cuts. However, he also has been adamant that he wants to avoid a government shutdown, well-aware of the blame assigned to Republicans in charge of Congress during the shutdowns of the mid-1990s.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) upped the ante Tuesday, introducing a 30-day resolution that would fund the government at current spending levels. He also announced that he has instructed his chief of staff to work with Boehner’s to put together a long-term CR.

Democrats in both chambers are pushing legislation that would halt paychecks for lawmakers and the president during a government shutdown. While policymakers got paid during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, legislation introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) would stop that.

“If we’re going to throw federal employees, including our staffs, out on the street, we should be right there with them,” Moran said Friday. “In the event of a shutdown, members should be eating peanut butter and jelly like everyone else.”

Sam Youngman contributed to this report.