Graybeards rule Survivor Island

(Editors Note: The picture to the left that goes with this column was age-enhanced out of sensitivity to older readers.)

Graybeards who survived the great government shutdown of 1995-96 are in demand these days in federal offices. It fact, it may be the most attention the old-timers have had from their younger colleagues in a long spell.

The wise ones, those who can still remember what happened back in the day, are living fossils. They are real time-links to the last great shutdown (21 days plus change). There had also been a mini-shutdown (six days) in November 1995. For most employees, it amounted to an unexpected, paid holiday. But what really happened?

The son of a former Office of Personnel Management employee said his father caught on quick. When handed lemons, he made lemonade. He said as soon as the the two shutdowns were declared, his father took the family to the beach. He turned it into a vacation.


As disruptive and silly as most shutdowns usually are, it could happen again:

Most of the political leaders who brought on the last monumental foul-up, which cost the government much, much more than it allegedly saved, are gone. That is the good news. The bad news is that they have been replaced by others who (for this exercise) are at least as dumb and much more partisan than their predecessors.

Under new government shutdown guidelines — from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice — any shutdown will be divided into two parts. Top lawyers in every agency and department will decide which operations to keep running, and which will be shutdown.

In the event of a shutdown, the guidelines say, “plans to address agency actions” are broken down into “two distinct time periods.”

The first five days of any shutdown will, according to the rules, be “characterized as a ‘short’ hiatus…” Makes sense! But…

It is unclear what the the short-hiatus will be called if it runs longer than five days. One might guess “long hiatus,” but so far there is no additional guidance on the guidance.

Based on what happened in 1995-96, most government workers will probably be told to report to work. As noted in yesterday’s column, the Congressional Research Service said that 475,000 feds worked through the shutdown, while 284,000 were told to go home and listen to the radio. Everybody got paid for the time off although this time, should there be a shutdown, it is very possible that those who don’t work, won’t get paid.

So who is necessary? Who will work and who won’t? Making the right call isn’t as easy as some think.

Mark J., a career fed, had this to say about it:

“The problem with deciding what government services are necessary (and by extension, the people who conduct those services), is that we too often take a very short-term view when making the assessment.

“During a five week doctors’ strike in January 1976 in Los Angeles, for example, mortality actually went down. At first glance, it may look like doctors were killing more patients than they were saving. In reality, the drop was caused by postponing surgeries and other treatments, some of which would have resulted in death. Longer-term, however, and those untreated medical conditions would have resulted in a death rate higher than the cure.”

Here are the guidelines that determine whether you will work, or be sent home, if there is a shutdown. Those who will be working are:

  • Those who are paid from a resource other than annual appropriations;
  • Those who are necessary to perform activities expressly authorized by law;
  • Those who are necessary to perform activities necessarily implied by law;
  • Those who are necessary to the discharge of the President’s constitutional duties and powers; and
  • Those who are necessary to protect life and property.

Phased retirement

At 10 a.m. on our Your Turn radio show, we’ll be talking with Bob Braunstein, an expert on the upcoming phased retirement option. It would allow you to work three days a week for half a year. At 10:30 a.m., we’ll switch over to Federal Times senior writer Sean Reilly for the latest on the possible shutdown, the flap over security clearances and a once-over on the U.S. Postal Service.

Listen if you can (1500 AM or online), and if you have questions email them to me at or call in during the show at (202) 465-3080. The show will be archived here.


Compiled by Jack Moore

Henry Denham, a 16th century English printer, proposed using a backward question mark to end sentences containing rhetorical questions. Denham called it a percontation point. It was used until the early 1600s but never caught on.

(Source: Mental Floss)


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