Barry Anderson remembers. He was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1995 and 1996, the last time the U.S. government closed its doors. He worked closely with a small cadre of OMB leaders, digging through little-known statutes and Justice Department interpretations to determine who is an essential employee and who should be furloughed.
"I'm not sure if it's apocryphal or not but there were questions about the National Zoo," he remembered. "The guards were essential. The people feeding the animals were essential. But what about the people who delivered the food and prepared it? If you run out of meat you don't want them lions getting hungry."
The bizarro world of the shutdown has left green-eyeshade guys with Solomonic decisions about feeding Simba. It has also riven the American people. Some are acutely feeling the shutdown pain—the furloughed workers themselves and any businesses that are immediately affected, say the oft-cited concessionaires near National Parks. Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent, notes the collapse of cruise ship tourism in Bar Harbor with the closing of Acadia National park. "If you own a motel and don't fill the bed that night you can't get that night back," King says. He says the pain is isolated but spreading.
That's partly because of the size of the affected workforce: About 450,000 federal employees have been furloughed out of a federal workforce of 2.7 million. (Almost all of the 350,000 Pentagon employees who had been furloughed were called back to service by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.) The American workforce is about 155 million, meaning this furlough affects less than one-third of 1 percent of U.S. workers.
And of course decisions that deem many "essential" allow Americans to can go about life without being hit by airplanes falling from the sky (because air traffic controllers are on the job), or fretting about al-Qaida surging (because the military is still shooting ), or hiding from Hannibal Lecters (because the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn't unlocked the cells). The Postal Service is the federal entity that Americans deal with the most and it has not seen furloughs. The biggest entitlement checks, Social Security and Medicare, will keep rolling.
But while the pain is clearly tolerable now, it will begin to feel unacceptably acute soon, should the shutdown continue.
Consider transportation. Roads and bridges are paid for by a highway trust fund that shouldn't be much affected by the pathological stalemate over a continuing resolution. But, one transportation industry representative says, there's a huge regulatory dimension to roads—permits needed from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and others. Those agencies are barely functioning, let alone processing permits. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration? Some of its funding comes from that trust fund and is secure—for things like crash test safety, for example. But any of the safety studies or promotions to get people to use their baby car seats properly or have recalls? Not happening. Government reports on oil that are followed closely in the transportation world might stop next week. What's tolerable now won't be in a month if roads can't get built.
It's been less than two weeks since the government was partially shuttered. Another week or so of the government not putting out economic statistics, leaving the financial-services industry flying blind, and Americans may feel it. When applications for veterans' benefits or Federal Housing Administration loans start to stall, things may not look peachy. Not surprisingly the poor take it the hardest. Social Security for grandma in Boca seems safe, but all the administrative money for running the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps? That's gone even if the money for beneficiaries can last longer. School lunch programs may have another month left before states have to kick in. It's not impossible that federal courts may start to slow down, with some trials going into cryogenic recess. That's why economists overwhelmingly believe a shutdown of a few weeks will cause real problems.
And that's just this round. Can you build a government workforce of any talent if you keep doing this? Sen. King, who was a congressional staffer 40 years ago, is visibly angry about "the way we're treating federal employees."
"We're jerking them around," he says. "It just frosts me and it's wrong."
In a few weeks, a lot more people may be echoing the sentiment.