Shutdown: It ain’t over when its over

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

The news that the Senate has reached a compromise to end the government shutdown is good news. It would be even better news if it meant the 2018 budget and appropriations process was done. After all, the fiscal year began 114 days ago. This new deal — another continuing resolution — keeps the government open until Feb. 8.

All of the problems that are caused by governing by continuing resolution are still there. Long-term contracts may be affected, planning for the year is on hold or happening in slow motion, and agencies are spending money they should not need to spend. The Department of Defense has been clear in its statements that government by CR is hurting them. Other agencies are saying they have similar feelings about CRs.

This looks like it is going to be a short shutdown, so you might conclude it will have no lasting effect. I think that is probably not true. Here are just a few longer-term effects of a shutdown.

Uncertainty about 2018 funding — The negotiations in the House and Senate have included proposals to significantly increase defense spending and to increase spending in some civilian agencies. They include proposals for varying amounts of disaster recovery money for Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. At the same time, the president’s budget proposal for the year still calls for cuts in many agencies. What will come out of the ongoing negotiations? No one knows for sure, so agencies are in a holding pattern.

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Spring and summer spending — Once the appropriations are in place for the remainder of the fiscal year (if we do not end up with a string of CRs lasting for the rest of the year) agencies will have to assess what they got and what they needed, then allocate money to program offices. That is going to take a while, so expect a rush to get the money spent. Do not blame the agencies for that. They had nothing to do with it.

Hiring — If you are a highly skilled person who is considering looking for a new job, will the federal government be high on your list? After all, why not go to work for an organization that periodically shuts down for no reason? Everyone wants to sign up with an outfit where half of the board of directors goes out on the front steps and rakes the other half over the coals. That makes the government an employer with questionable stability and reliability.

The reputation of federal workers — I spent part of my weekend reading and watching coverage of the shutdown. One thing I heard often was the discussion of “nonessential” employees who were sent home. Some folks say “if they are nonessential, why do we need them anyway?” Let’s get this one straight. There is no category of employees who are deemed “nonessential” in a shutdown. That is not a term of art — it is just a commonly misused term. The categories of employees that matter in a shutdown are excepted, exempt and furloughed.

Exempt employees are paid by appropriations that do not have to be passed by Congress every year or by fees or working capital funds. They work during the a lapse of appropriations because their money is still there. They also continue to get paid for the same reason. There is a possibility that the money would run out. For example, if an agency relies on fees paid by other agencies from appropriated dollars, the money can dry up quickly during a shutdown. In that case, the employees would shift to the other two categories.

Excepted employees (not the same as the excepted service) work because they are engaged in activities that cannot be allowed to stop. The Border Patrol is a good example. If we took the Border Patrol offline during a shutdown, the number of undocumented border crossings would skyrocket. People who want to do us harm would see an ideal opportunity to get their people into the U.S. Even though there is no money available to pay them, the work of the Border Patrol is so critical to our safety that they will continue to work. It is important to remember the exception covers their work and not their leave. If an excepted employee wants to take leave, s/he must be furloughed for that time. The legal justification is solid. We can make an exception to protect the border, save a life, engage in diplomacy, or many other excepted functions, but we cannot make an exception to go on vacation. The key point to remember is there is no way to pay excepted employees until the shutdown is over.

Furloughed employees are sent home without pay. There is no money available to pay for their work, and their work does not have the urgency that work such as the Border Patrol has. They are still subject to all of the restrictions and requirements that covered them when they were working. That means they cannot get outside employment without approval, cannot take gifts from contractors or other sources, etc. They are subject to a rapid recall, so they cannot treat the furlough time like a vacation and go away.

None of those employee designations is “essential” or “nonessential.” If government got rid of the employees who are furloughed during a shutdown, most agencies would cease to exist in any meaningful way. I would not be happy to see the Weather Service disappear. Or NASA, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Science Foundation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy Department, or the Environmental Protection Agency. But because of the sloppy language that is misused by some folks, some readers and viewers get the idea that there are categories of employees for shutdowns called essential and nonessential.

I hope all federal workers are back on the job in the morning. I hope Congress does its job and passes an appropriation that lasts then entire year. And next fiscal year I hope there are appropriations in place on Oct. 1. I am not optimistic that those hopes for the remainder of the year will be realized.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.