- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

As Washington and the nation brace for a possible government shutdown next week, federal agencies are scrambling to determine how many “essential” workers will stay on the job.

In Oklahoma, a federal employees union has notified the government that it wants its civilian workers at a military base deemed essential, given that the country is fighting two wars. In the District of Columbia, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has crafted legislation to make sure a shutdown won’t halt city services.

Across the government, bureaucrats are trying to decide just who qualifies as essential personnel, earning the right to continue working even as the rest of the government gets furloughed.

During the most recent federal shutdowns, some agencies kept more than half their staffs on the job.

The federal government is funded through March 4, and congressional Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach an agreement on an extension.

The standoff raises echoes of the 1995-96 government shutdown that cost newly ascendant congressional Republicans dearly.

However, the public of 2011 is closely divided on who is trying to avoid a government shutdown.

According to a Gallup poll taken Tuesday and released Thursday, Republicans have an edge — albeit a statistically insignificant one — over President Obama and congressional Democrats on the matter of which party is “doing the better job in the current efforts to agree on a new federal budget.”

Among the 1,004 adults surveyed, 42 percent said Republicans are doing better, compared with 39 percent for Democrats, though that edge is within the poll’s error margin of 4 percentage points.

If a deal isn’t struck by the deadline, thousands of government employees throughout the nation — including National Park Service rangers and Washington bureaucrats — could be told to stay home.

Essential services such as air traffic control and overseas combat would continue in full operating mode, but just what else is “essential” is a matter of debate.

The American Federation of Government Employees has asked the government to exclude its civilian workers at Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base from any furloughs resulting from a shutdown, saying its members are vital to national security.

“The difference between the government shutdown of 1995-96 and now is that our country is fighting in two wars,” said AFGE Local 916 Legislative Director R. Bryan Jackson. “The mission for all Tinker employees is to maintain war-fighter readiness. We cannot let a funding issue jeopardize the safety of the men and women fighting overseas.”

The Defense Department, like other agencies, did not comment specifically on how many of its personnel would continue working worldwide during a shutdown. But a spokesman said the department would “do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops.”

“The department must also continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property,” said spokeswoman Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler. “These types of activities will be ‘exempt’ from cessation. All other activities would need to be shut down in an orderly and deliberate fashion.”

In the nation’s capital, Mrs. Norton on Thursday submitted a bill to House and Senate leaders to allow the District to spend its local taxpayer-raised funds if the federal government shuts down.

Mrs. Norton said most members of Congress are “completely unaware” that the D.C. government would shut down if the federal government closes. D.C. workers would be affected because the city’s affairs are administered under federal authority.

“We are sure there is no congressional intention to close down the District’s local government because of congressional disagreement over the federal budget,” the Democrat said.

Mrs. Norton said she and city leaders are looking into other ways to keep the D.C. government operating in the event of a federal shutdown.

“This is not the District’s fight, and there is nothing the District could do to resolve a disagreement over federal spending,” she said.

The federal government was shut down for five days in late 1995 and 21 days in 1995 and early 1996. On Jan. 2, 1996, the estimate of furloughed federal employees was 284,000. Another 475,000 federal employees, rated “essential,” continued to work in a nonpayment status.

Federal agencies are required to submit plans to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regarding how they would operate under a shutdown, including the number of employees to be retained. Although OMB hasn’t released details of those plans, agency contingency plans from 1995 give an indication as to what could be expected.

In a 1995 report prepared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Commerce, Justice and State departments collectively were set to retain 63.8 percent of their workers, with 36.2 percent subjected to furloughs.

The report also showed 52.7 percent of Interior Department workers would stay on the job, while the Health and Human Services Department would keep 42.4 percent of its workers active.

A whopping 78.1 percent of employees collectively would be retained from the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments, as well as independent regulatory agencies, the 1995 report said.

The Obama administration says it’s hopeful a shutdown can be averted but is preparing for the worst.

“We’re confident that we can find the common ground that we need to find in order to avoid a government shutdown, and that [congressional] leaders in both parties agree that that’s what we need to do,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.

The White House has said some recent retirees may not receive their Social Security payments if operations shut down.

Mr. Carney added that such a move would hurt the nation’s fragile economy.

“The broader point is that the uncertainty created by this, the number of consequences that could unfold if this does happen, would create the kind of environment that would be harmful to the economy overall,” he said.

One agency that wouldn’t be affected by a shutdown is the Postal Service, which is a self-sufficient entity of the U.S. government that doesn’t directly receive taxpayer dollars.

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