Playing Ping-Pong With Federal Workers

National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins and Elahe Izadi
Christopher Snow Hopkins Elahe Izadi
Oct. 1, 2013, 4:43 p.m.

As Con­gress wrangles over how to fund the gov­ern­ment, fed­er­al em­ploy­ees are among the ma­jor cas­u­al­ties.

Fur­loughed work­ers — there are an es­tim­ated 800,000 — lose money and gain free time. And they of­ten con­front one of the most un­com­fort­able ques­tions one can face in Wash­ing­ton: Just how im­port­ant are you?

As one Demo­crat­ic House staffer put it, “Noth­ing breeds con­tempt more than lin­ing people up and say­ing, “˜I need you and not you.’”

In fed­er­al work­places across the cap­it­al, em­ploy­ees are be­ing cat­egor­ized as either es­sen­tial or non­es­sen­tial, those who can stay and those who must go. Con­gress it­self is not im­mune. The very law­makers who, locked in a par­tis­an fight over a short-term fund­ing bill, shot past Tues­day’s dead­line to pass a budget deal are now them­selves be­ing asked to make tough choices.

For in­stance, Sen. Joe Manchin had his Wash­ing­ton of­fice shrink from 27 to 11 and his West Vir­gin­ia staff cut from 17 to two. “After lunch we’ll be bare bones,” said Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss of Geor­gia, whose staff of 30 could fall to as few as four. “Nobody will be there” to an­swer con­stitu­ent calls, he said. “They’ll get to hear my mes­sage.”

Agen­cies had been pre­par­ing for a while, but the gov­ern­ment shut­down still came as a sur­prise to some. “No one thought it would hap­pen,” said a fur­loughed De­part­ment of Justice em­ploy­ee. “We didn’t start dis­cuss­ing it in de­tail un­til Monday.” The form­al email ask­ing em­ploy­ees to make pre­par­a­tions to be out of the of­fice Tues­day — in­clud­ing set­ting up an out-of-of­fice reply — was sent Monday af­ter­noon.

The DOJ em­ploy­ee said he woke up Tues­day morn­ing and watched the news, as staffers had been ad­vised to do, to de­term­ine wheth­er to come in­to the of­fice. “If you’re non­es­sen­tial, you’re not even al­lowed to check your [work] Black­Berry,” he said. The con­cern is that this would be con­sidered vo­lun­teer work, which is il­leg­al for those em­ploy­ees who have been fur­loughed without pay. “You may get an email from your su­per­visor, but you’re not sup­posed to look at it.”

As fed­er­al em­ploy­ees were sor­ted by bosses — some­times pub­licly — many took com­fort in each oth­er, to­geth­er en­dur­ing the first day of the first gov­ern­ment shut­down in 17 years. Some, for ex­ample, gathered at the Sixth & I Syn­agogue, a cul­tur­al haven in Chin­atown, for themed snacks, a West Wing mara­thon — even games of polit­ic­al ping-pong.

On hand were refugees from Cap­it­ol Hill, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice, and the De­part­ments of Com­merce, De­fense, In­teri­or, and Labor, as well as some party crash­ers not on the gov­ern­ment payroll. Without ex­cep­tion, these “non­es­sen­tial” per­son­nel were per­plexed by the la­bel.

“There’s no in­put or reas­on­ing to who’s es­sen­tial and who’s non­es­sen­tial,” said one De­fense De­part­ment em­ploy­ee, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he was not au­thor­ized to speak to the press.

“It’s kind of ri­dicu­lous,” ad­ded his co­hort, also from De­fense. “I’m skep­tic­al of some of the con­gres­sion­al jobs that have been deemed “˜es­sen­tial.’ “

Oth­ers seemed dazed by the con­gres­sion­al mach­in­a­tions that pre­cip­it­ated the crisis.

“It still feels a bit sur­real that this is hap­pen­ing,” said Mat­thew Gever, a GAO health care ana­lyst. “When the count­down was go­ing on, we all thought, “˜They’ll come up with something.’ I’d prefer to be at work. It’s my job and I like do­ing it. I’d prefer to be there and not here.”

“Today and to­mor­row should be OK be­cause I did some over­time last week,” the DOJ em­ploy­ee said. “But after that it stops be­ing fun and starts be­ing stress­ful.”

“I would rather be get­ting paid,” ad­ded an of­fi­cial with the Labor De­part­ment. “The West Wing does take the sting out. As I’ve said on Face­book, you’ve got to make lem­on­ade out of the situ­ation.”

One De­fense em­ploy­ee said his agency was par­tic­u­larly hard hit. He had been told that ap­prox­im­ately 50 per­cent of the de­part­ment’s em­ploy­ees were fur­loughed in the fisc­al 1996 fights, but this year, he es­tim­ated up to 98 per­cent were sent home.

“We had four hours max this morn­ing to close everything down,” he said. “When people were log­ging in to down­load the un­em­ploy­ment form, the serv­er crashed. They later sent us a stand­ard form with the name blacked out. I’m not even sure that will be ac­cep­ted.”

Non­ethe­less, the mood was fest­ive at Sixth & I, with a smat­ter­ing of ap­plause when The West Wing’s Pres­id­ent Bart­lett made his first ap­pear­ance on screen. To ac­com­mod­ate the an­ti­cip­ated turnout, a rabbi hauled a leath­er sofa up sev­er­al flights of stairs. As com­mu­nic­a­tions man­ager Han­nah Oren­stein ex­plained, “We chose The West Wing be­cause of the fam­ous shut­down epis­ode.”

By noon, the snacks had be­gun to dis­ap­pear as party­go­ers paused from polit­ic­al ping-pong with the faces of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Re­id, and Mitch Mc­Con­nell pas­ted on the paddles — a nod to the le­gis­lat­ive vol­leys between the House and Sen­ate in re­cent days — to re­plen­ish them­selves. The smor­gas­bord in­cluded “Le­gis­lat­ive-ADE,” “Cin­na­mon Roll Calls,” and a crate of or­anges labeled “John Boehner.”

The Sixth & I Syn­agogue, which has oc­cu­pied its cur­rent loc­a­tion in the Chin­atown neigh­bor­hood since 1908, is a mag­net for the city’s cul­tur­al elite. The syn­agogue is not just a house of wor­ship, but a sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion with book sign­ings, con­certs, and oth­er cul­tur­al events. It de­rives some of its cachet from the grande dame in the ex­ec­ut­ive suite. Es­th­er Safran Fo­er is the moth­er of Jonath­an Safran Fo­er, au­thor of the 2005 nov­el Ex­tremely Loud and In­cred­ibly Close, and Frank­lin Fo­er, ed­it­or of The New Re­pub­lic.

“We ac­tu­ally didn’t think we’d get a lot of people,” said Es­th­er Fo­er, who serves as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “But dur­ing Hur­ricane Sandy, in­sti­tu­tions opened their doors, and we thought it’d be a nice thing to do.”

Fo­er said the idea hit her earli­er this week.

“I woke up yes­ter­day morn­ing and said to my hus­band, “˜You know, the gov­ern­ment is shut­ting down, and we’re a com­munity in­sti­tu­tion, and we need to do something for our com­munity,’ “ she said. “I sent a memo to the staff at 9:30 a.m. that said, “˜Why don’t we do a shut­down café?’ “

Clara Rit­ger and Soph­ie No­vack con­trib­uted

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
15 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
16 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
19 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
20 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×