CRS issues causes and effects of shutdowns

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), as part of its job to provide policy and legal analysis to Congress, has taken a look at the “Causes, Processes, and Effects” of shutting down the federal government.

The basic, heavily paraphrased advice of the CRS to Congress based on an examination of the FY 1996 shutdowns would seem to be “don’t not do next time what you didn’t do last time or chaos will ensue.”

In December 1995, then chair of the Subcommittee on Civil Service of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Rep. John Mica raised concerns about agency and OMB planning, saying “it is unfortunate that the execution of the shutdown was, in many instances, disorganized and illogical, at best, and oftentimes chaotic experience.”


The February 18 CRS report suggests more oversight by Congress “may provide incentives for agencies to improve the quality of the plans” and “inform budget policy debates about the potential impacts of shutdowns”.

Of particular concern in the FY 96 shutdown, noted CRS, was the experience of the Social Security Administration which retained 4,780 of its employees and furloughed the remaining 61,415. “Before long, however, SSA and OMB reconsidered. SSA had not retained staff to, among other things, respond to ‘telephone calls from customers needing a Social Security card to work or who needed to change the address where their check should be mailed for the following month.'” SSA then brought back another 49,715 additional employees for direct service work.

According to CRS, OMB requires every agency to include at least four elements in their shutdown planning:

  • an estimate of the time to complete the shutdown, to the nearest half-day;
  • the number of employees expected to be on-board (i.e., filled positions) before implementation of the plan;
  • the total number of employees to be “retained” under the plan (i.e., not subject to furlough), broken out into two categories: (1) employees “engaged in military, law enforcement, or direct provision of health care activities” and (2) employees whose “compensation is financed by a resource other than annual appropriations”; and
  • the total number of additional employees who will be retained, in order to protect life and property, who are not “exempt” from furlough because of the two previous criteria, above.

“In general,” notes the report, “the circular refers to employees who are to be furloughed as ‘released,’ and employees who will not be furloughed as ‘retained’ or ‘exempt.'” And then there’s another group of federal employees: those who are “excepted.”

“Excepted” employees, who are required to work during a shutdown, are described as “employees who are excepted from a furlough by law because they are (1) performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, (2) involved in the orderly suspension of agency operations, or (3) performing other functions exempted from the furlough.”

The report, it should probably be noted, makes no mention of “essential” and “non-essential” employees, other than in a footnote:

In congressional hearings that focused on the first FY1996 shutdown, some witnesses expressed regret that the terms “nonessential” and “essential” had been used to describe employees subject to furlough, and not subject to furlough, respectively. Use of the term “nonessential” was demeaning, they suggested.


Budget Resource Page

Shutdown Coverage

Federal furlough FAQ

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)