Regulators prepare to be ‘handcuffed’ in shutdown

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The impact of a shutdown would vary by agency.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mostly tasks federal agencies with developing plans for operating during a government shutdown. While most officials at places like the CFTC would be sent home, federal law requires some employees whose work would save lives or protect property during an emergency to stay on the job.

“There is some flexibility, but it’s  a very limited amount of flexibility,” said Ed Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Law. “And, as I say, they can’t just make it up.”

At the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, “a core group of individuals” will stay on the job in case of a major emergency, Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters this week. The “vast majority” of the agency’s 17,000 workers, however, would be told to stay home.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency would also be able to come to work.

While touring damage from recent flooding in Greeley, Colo., on Monday, Vice President Biden said that, no matter what happens in Washington, “there will be someone on the other end of the line” for people suffering from natural disasters.

In a memo last week, OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell told agency leaders to “carefully review” which staffers would be allowed to work during a possible shutdown.

“Determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed as agencies undertake this process,” OMB spokeswoman Emily Cain told The Hill in an email.

For many officials, shutdown preparations are nothing new.

Agency leaders were in a similar position just two years ago, when fiscal fights in Congress also threatened to shut the government’s doors.

“We have developed plans the last time this came around,” McCarthy said. “We jumpstarted a relook at those.”

This shutdown threat also comes as agencies are still dealing with the across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration, which went into effect in March.

“Certainly, when you have fewer resources, you can do less work,” said Cary Coglianese, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “Sequestration diminished the available resources. This will obviously diminish them further.”

Not all agencies will close their doors without a funding deal by  midnight on Sept. 30, however.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, gets its funds through the Federal Reserve, not congressional appropriations. As such, its operations would not be directly affected, a spokesman said.

Beyond the operational details, some are concerned that a stoppage could make it harder for the government to recruit talent.

“It sends a bad signal to young people who are trying to go into the government that it’s not a very stable environment, which is very unfortunate because we really need good civil servants,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

A government shutdown — even a short one — might also have lingering effects for an administration with big plans to tackle climate change and financial abuse over the next three years.

The Obama administration has announced major new efforts to tackle air pollution through regulation, and has yet to implement many provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act that are intended to prevent another financial crisis.

If the president gets blamed for a shutdown, all those efforts could suffer, experts say.

“It really weakens him in terms of policy, and one of the things that he’s going to try to achieve his agenda through the regulatory process,” Coglianese said. “So a weakened president will affect the ability of the administration to achieve its policy objectives through regulation.”