Pain From the Shutdown Is Isolated, but Won’t Stay That Way Long

A fraction of the workforce is furloughed, but if the government remains closed for much longer, more and more Americans will begin to feel an effect.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Furloughed federal workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown October 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today marks the fourth day of the government shutdown as Republicans and Democrats remain at an impasse over funding the federal government. 
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Oct. 12, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

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