Protests here, there and everywhere and the US Government shutdown looms large

Daily News cover illustrated by Ed Murawinski.Image via WikipediaMarch 4 is 8 days away.  If the parties in US Congress cannot reach an agreement on spending cuts, the shutdown of the federal government will certainly happen. Not the first time, but this will be the first in 15 years.

The most recent one occurred in FY1996 for five days between November 13-19, 1995.  The second one also in FY1996 was the longest in history, and lasted 21 days between December 15, 1995 – January 6, 1996.

Of course, as soon as the second government shutdown was lifted, the blizzard of 1996, a severe nor’easter arrived and paralyzed the entire East Coast with up to 4 feet of wind-driven snow.   Remember that? A big mess all around, and not just the snow, most of it dumped on the GOP lawn.

How many federal employees were affected?

An estimated 800,000 federal employees were furloughed in November 1995 shutdown.  The CRS reported that on January 2, 1996, the estimate of furloughed federal employees was 284,000. And that another 475,000 excepted federal employees continued to work in nonpay status.

Are there officials and employees not subject to shutdown furlough?

Of course. The CRS says that several types of officials and employees are not subject to furlough. These include Members of Congress, the President, presidential appointees, certain legislative branch employees, and federal employees deemed “excepted.”

Who are the excepted employees?

 “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.”

Is there a maximum period an employee may be furloughed?
According to OPM: “An employee may be placed on a reduction in force furlough only when the agency plans to recall the employee to his or her position within 1 year. Therefore, the furlough may not exceed 1 year.”

Can an employee obtain a loan from their Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) account while in a nonpay status?According to OPM: “An employee may not obtain a loan from their TSP account while in a nonpay status.”

Real effects from the previous shutdowns:
(Source: the Congressional Research Service)

  • Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance; hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites reportedly stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home.
  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety. Delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended; cancellation of the recruitment and testing of federal law enforcement officials reportedly occurred, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents; and delinquent child-support cases were delayed.
  • Parks, Museums, and Monuments. Closure of 368 National Park Service sites (loss of 7 million visitors) reportedly occurred, with loss of tourism revenues to local communities; and closure of national museums and monuments (reportedly with an estimated loss of 2 million visitors) occurred.
  • American Veterans. Multiple services were curtailed, ranging from health and welfare to finance and travel
  • Federal Contractors. Of $18 billion in Washington, DC, area contracts, $3.7 billion (over 20%) reportedly were affected adversely by the funding lapse; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was unable to issue a new standard for lights and lamps that was scheduled to be effective January 1, 1996, possibly resulting in delayed product delivery and lost sales; and employees of federal contractors reportedly were furloughed without pay.
  • Visas and Passports. Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas reportedly went unprocessed each day; 200,000 U.S. applications for passports reportedly went unprocessed; and U.S. tourist industries and airlines reportedly sustained millions of dollars in losses.

We should note that in 1996, the State Department processed 5,547,693 passports. Last year that number more than doubled to 13,883,129 (including 1,596,485 passport cards).

On visas, the United States issued 482,052 immigrant visas in 2010 with processing fees between $305 to $720. The nonimmigrant visa and border crossing card issuance last year was at 6,422,751. That number does not account for the total visa application numbers, which would be way higher.  Tourist visa applications and border crossing cards cost $140 a pop. You do the math.   

Potentially, all US embassies and consulates will also shutdown if the continuing funding resolution is not extended before Friday, March 4 at 11:59 pm. Since ambassadors are presidential appointees, they will presumably continue working.  I suspect that most of the embassy staff will be sent home. Think you might volunteer your service for free to Uncle Sam? Think again. Not possible.  “Unless otherwise authorized by law, an agency may not accept the voluntary services of an individual.” (31 U.S.C. 1342). Read more here.  

US missions will not be able to pay local bills for water, phone, electricity, sewer and other services for the chancery, and all USG properties.  Hopefully, your management section already has an excellent working relationship with these service providers and none will cut off essential services to the embassy or embassy housing.

In 1995, all visa applications are walk-in.  Today, a good number of consular sections have online appointment systems. Which means, visa appointments will have to be canceled and rescheduled if there is a shutdown.  Consular sections may only be open for life and death emergencies. That means lost passport applications, reports of births abroad, adoption cases, notarials, etc. will all have to wait until the Federal government reopens.

Large scale evacuations of US embassy staff and US citizens in whatever is the next domino to fall  —  would that be considered “essential?” Don’t know if evacuees will be allowed government loans during the shutdown. Don’t know what happens if you are on evacuation status in the safehaven destination or back in the US when the government shuts down. Best check with official folks to get answers before window closes for official business.   

Members of Congress are exempt from the shutdown furloughs (and will continue to get their paychecks, of course). This means you might still see a CODEL visit in popular destinations like Kabul or Baghdad amidst a federal shutdown.  Of course, there won’t technically be embassy cars/drivers or control officers for those visits.

Check out the OPM page here on furloughs.


Since you enjoy your jobs so much, Congress wants you to take a pay cut ….

In case you did not see this — Rep. Thomas Reed, R-N.Y sponsored an amendment that cut the locality pay for Foreign Service officers serving overseas. Mr. Reed’s press release touts the removal of the “automatic 24 percent pay raise for foreign service officers,” his third successful amendment apparently. And it passed the House over the weekend.

There is locality pay for all CONUS states. Why Congress is only targeting the 11,500 Foreign Service workforce is not clear. About 70% are not in the Senior Foreign Service and could be affected by this cut when deployed overseas.  I mean really, that’s about 7,600 federal employees serving overseas in over 260 posts. Mr. Reed’s state is home to some 69,000 federal employees (not counting the feds working for CIA, DIA, NSA and the other “A”s who may be assigned in the state of New York). Look – that’s 9 times the Foreign Service number. Imagine the savings there?   

Makes you kinda scratch your head, huh?

Could it be because you have “foreign” in your job title? Or it it because you work overseas and is not in real America?  And by the way, who knows if you even vote when you are so far away!?!

I think of this as a simple fairness issue.  Of course, nothing is ever simple when it comes to money, or politics.    

WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe had an item on the House spending bill that cuts the locality pay for overseas diplomats.  And this: “The president’s bipartisan fiscal commission also recommended canceling locality pay for overseas diplomats. Though proponents believe the payments are necessary to address recruitment and retention concerns, “the foreign service career field remains highly competitive with 25,000 applicants competing for 300 to 900 positions annually,” the commission concluded.”

Perhaps, the commission looked at those numbers but certainly did not calculate talent loss. There will always be more applicants than jobs. The question is — can the US government afford to spend $$$ for recruitment, training and particularly, language training, year in and year out only to see that talent walk away before it gets back the return of investment? If State and AFSA pushes this as a “retention concern” as the commission calls it, I think it would be really helpful if the State Department can run down the numbers and have solid  retention and ROI numbers. How much does it cost to recruit and train an entry level officer, add 6-12 months of language training, 1-2 post assignment, and how many years before the government’s investment pays off. It is unfortunately that it would come down to numbers but I think that’s the way it goes in this difficult budget environment.           

In any case, as Ed points out “the House bill as enacted has no hope of Senate passage or earning President Obama’s signature, so this proposal — while interesting and certainly controversial — may not survive.”

May not survive this time, that is not to say it won’t happen ever.  

All that did not preclude folks from slinging around their ignorance online — 

You folks working overseas apparently do not pay the first $80K of your income overseas. Did you know that? Hah! That IRS has been cheating on FS folks again! It collected every tax penny from your salary including self-employed spouse’s annual income of less than $700. If you believe everything you hear, that IRS did not have to collect anything from your $56K + $700 income?  Really.

Go ahead and believe that crap, and you might end up sharing a jail cell with whatshisname actor and tax evader.

Foreign Service folks are not/not exempt from paying full federal, state, and Medicare/SS tax on salaries just because they live in Burkina Faso or whatever the name of the hellhole they’re presently assigned to. They pay their taxes happily and willingly, ‘cuz if they don’t, they could get written up for atrocious unlawful uncivic unprofessional behavior, then they won’t get promoted, then they get kick out, then they’re just part of the 9% unemployment stats. The end. 

Now, if your spouse (who is not employed by Uncle Sam) writes a bodice ripper and earns — I think the foreign earnings figure is actually $92,900 for 2011 — he/she may actually get an exclusion. But best check with Uncle Sam on that. Anyway, despite prevailing belief to the contrary, Uncle Sam’s employees overseas are not exempt from paying taxes (unless they’re civies at Gitmo). The foreign earned income does not include amounts paid by the United States or an agency thereof to an employee of the United States or an agency thereof. Congress wrote that up. It’s the law of the land. And we know that US diplomatic missions are part of that land, even if they are located all over the map, right? 

You also — supposedly ride around town in a $50,000 Cadillac with diplomatic license plates on the bumper like — let me get this right — “like you are better than the very citizens you are supposed to be serving.” Ouch! Such sparkling prejudice. Really, a Cadillac? That must be the low level Qatari diplomat riding around in his regular car in DC streets.   Have not seen any Cadillac at US overseas posts, not saying there’s none, just haven’t see any from the embassy compounds I’ve been to.  Saw lots of armored Chevy where you can’t roll down the windows. In case you think its armored for decoration, I can assure you it’s not. It is armored from front to back and have bullet resistant glass because driving/riding around in a USG vehicle overseas is like driving around with a target mark on your back.  What?  Um, sorry, not target, they’re called cross-hairs now. And in case you think this is vehicle security gone mad, it’s not that either. See, the US ambassador to Lome got carjacked recently. And the ICE agents in Mexico who were recently killed/wounded in Monterrey were also using an armored SUV. If not for armored vehicles, not Cadillacs, mind you — there would be many, many more names up on that memorial plaque on the wall.

So thank heavens for non-Cadillac armored SUVs overseas! 

Here are a few comments from Ed O’Keefe’s piece:

Brewer1056, an FSO writes:

“We pay taxes on 100% of our salary, even if serving in combat zones (and lots of us are), whereas our military colleagues are tax exempt in combat zones no matter the job or distance from combat.”

Well, there is that. We have unarmed diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also in Pakistan where they hate/hate the USA terribly and now think all diplomats are spies. And you don’t ever get a tax break for service in those posts. 

Somebody else writes:

“Also, please note that COLA only exists at posts with high costs of living. The US dollar doesn’t go very far in many parts of the world these days.”

Doesn’t go very far, I can attest to that. I’ve watched a friend in a European post make her own ice cream for four kids not because she is a domestic diva but because she could not afford to buy the local ice cream. And her husband was not even an entry level officer. 

Bevinbell, another FSO who work 70-hour weeks writes:

“I took a 35% pay cut to become a Foreign Service Officer – I did it because I love my country and wanted to serve overseas. However, this is not a volunteer job – I expect a salary and benefits to compensate me for the 70 hour workweeks that I routinely put in. I do not get overtime, my pay is frozen (like all federal employees), I serve at a very high hardship post (though not the highest), and I want to be treated fair.”

Yep, you get brownie points for working in excess of 40 hours, but brownie points can’t pay the mortgage.

unagi posted a question:

“Yes, there are hardship payments — so, for example, an employee could work in Libya or DC and make the same amount. What will they choose?”

Take a guess.

wenteast on the spouse unemployment track:  

“One other thought on our “extravagant” salaries — 98% of the time, your spouse can’t work overseas, OR he/she makes a fraction of what he/she could at home. So that’s a huge financial hit there.”

I should add that if you are a diplomatic spouse and have not worked in the last oh several months overseas, most states won’t even consider you for unemployment benefit. Which is fine if your husband/wife is still employed but not so fine if you have suddenly become separated/divorced with a lot of hurt in your pocket and kids to feed. One separated spouse told me she could not even afford a Big Mac for her kids when her husband dumped them and she and her kids had to return to the US.  

rbsher, another FSO out of Asia and Africa:

“I went through 5 coup d’etats in Laos (real bullets, real morters) with weather temperatures on many days exceeding 125 degrees, one small bedroom air conditioner, packs of wild (and mostly) rabid dogs running wild, meager medical facilities, and I was very comfortable driving my 6 year old Volkswagen. I went through 3 coup d’etats with postings in Africa with many of the foregoing comments applicable. Despite the dangers and (mostly uncomfortable) living conditions, I loved my foreign service career! Those who now see a ‘great savings’ by eliminating post differentials should have some of these experiences.”

If folks are arguing again on the post differentials, please send them to Sudan during harmattan or heck, why not have them spend their vacay in Beijing with its crazy bad air.

Of course, it’s not a complete line up of this United States of America unless you have some really wacky ideas thrown in like this one:

“Close the State Department. Hire mercenaries.”

Oh! What a gem, dat! I bet the writer would not suggest that if he/she were ever evacuated out of Abidjan, Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, etc. etc.

But just in case Congress takes in that suggestion (because, hey, why not, huh?) — close the State Department and Uncle Sam somehow hires ’em mercenaries — here is my simple advice if you’re an American in search of an adventure: Do not/do not go to Yemen. What’s neat on paper is not always neat in real life. Mercenaries will not arrange an evacuation to bring you back home, they will not notify your next of kin of your welfare or whereabouts, they will not have spouses to cook meals and help check on you in jails or hospitals.  And this one is really important — they will not search morgues to ID your body and ship it home.

I’ll get off my soapbox now, thank you… thank you ….

On a more serious note, LAJ has posted an AFSA item here on this issue. You can contact your representatives here.  The problem is (yes, I’ll be a party pooper) I just don’t think the FS has the numbers.  Even if the entire Foreign Service, and spouses and kids write to their congressfolks and senators, that may not really matter when push comes to shove. The diplomatic service needs to tell its story better. You need more than employees and family members to step up and say — it’s unfair to single out a small group of people for a pay cut.