- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Already hit by budget cuts and sequestration, the FBI is now trying to figure out how to deal with the federal shutdown that has laid off employees deemed “non-essential” to protecting national security.

The government shutdown that went into effect in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the result of the Democratic Senate and Republican House unable to agree on funding the government, has led to hundreds of thousands of federal workers being furloughed without pay.

FBI agents are expressing concern that the shutdown might worsen cuts made to the law-enforcement agency thanks to the mandatory budget reductions known as sequestration.

Last month, the FBI Agents Association released a report detailing the harmful effects budget cuts have had. The advocacy group, made up of former and current FBI employees, says there’s been a freeze placed on hiring new agents, no new training is taking place and the government is considering temporarily shutting down several field offices to save money.

“Trying to save money by undermining the FBI’s ability to protect the public is likely to be far more costly to our country in the long run,” the group said.

FBI Director James Comey, who took office in September, told reporters he was surprised at the effect the fiscal trouble has had at the agency.

“I was very surprised to learn how severe the required cut is and the potential impact on this organization,” he said. “Frankly, as a taxpayer and as an American I was surprised, and it didn’t make any sense to me that the FBI director would be asked not just to cut 3,000 positions but, given what’s on our plate, to send folks home for a couple weeks without pay.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget has been one of the chief offices responsible for determining who is deemed essential at each government department and therefore gets to keep working.

Exceptions are being made for employees whose duties are considered essential to maintaining national security and lawful order, which exempts much of the FBI’s workforce and all of its investigative resources.

“The FBI must be able to continue existing investigations, open new investigations, and respond to all contingencies which might arise during a lapse of appropriations,” OMB said in a memo about the shutdown. “Accordingly, all FBI agents and support personnel in the field are considered excepted from furlough.”

The FBI did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Many staff in media relations and press offices across the government have been put on furloughs, leading to delays in answering questions from reporters.

Some staff at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. will be kept onboard to provide support for field agents and maintain criminal identification databases.

But like other federal agencies, the FBI will likely see a number of employees not return to work for the foreseeable future, including secretaries, researchers, Web page developers and anyone working on projects not considered to be urgent or of vital interest to national security.

The FBI’s parent organization, the Justice Department is estimated to have between 130,000 to 150,000 employees. Of those, OMB deemed 96,300 of them to be essential for government operation, saying most of them were “necessary to protect life and property.”

That means there’s at least 40,000 DOJ employees who can’t work right now. However, getting an accurate estimate of the department’s size can be difficult. The U.S. Census Bureau website, which maintains records of how many people are employed at each federal agency, was taken offline due to the government shutdown.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sent a message to all DOJ employees Tuesday morning.

“I am grateful for your dedicated service and I am mindful of how difficult this shutdown is on you, the Department’s hard-working employees,” he said. “While I hope that Congress will act to resolve this situation quickly, I will make every effort to keep you informed over the coming days.”

The Antideficiency Act of 1884 in part governs federal behavior during a shutdown, and the government has interpreted it to mean employees are basically prevented from doing anything work-related.

The Government Accountability Office says the idea is that federal employees should not force the government to incur debts it later must pay — in this case, salaries. So no catching up on paperwork, no making job-related phone calls and even, the GAO says, no volunteering to work for free.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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