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.