The looming federal shutdown is dredging up bad memories for U.S. EPA veterans who were on staff the last time the government shuttered.
With less than 24 hours remaining until agencies could be forced to close, former Clinton administration officials are feeling déjà vu after experiencing the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 -- and they warn it could be even worse this time around.
"I think it was unsettling, deeply unsettling," said Jon Cannon, who served as EPA general counsel during the last shutdown and is currently a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
As a political appointee, Cannon went to work throughout the six-day shutdown in November 1995 and the 21-day shutdown that lasted from December 1995 into early January 1996. Most of EPA's employees stayed home during that time, forbidden from entering their offices.
"People were uncertain about what to do during the shutdown," Cannon said. "We had certain obligations to carry out under law, but most of those obligations we had to suspend." He recalled a shipment of automobiles sitting idly at the docks because it was unclear whether EPA could certify or inspect them.
EPA employees who weren't considered essential were forced to call in to the agency each morning for a recorded update from then-Administrator Carol Browner on the status of the shutdown. Former officials said the uncertainty led to widespread frustration among EPA staff, with workers prepared to go back to work at any moment and unsure about whether they would ultimately get paid.
"It's not like you get a vacation," Cannon said.
Several former EPA officials had forgotten the details of the last government shutdown. Overall, work was disrupted and projects somewhat delayed, they said. It was a hurdle but not an overwhelming one.
But one impact stayed clear: the hit to morale.
"It will certainly have an adverse impact on morale on the federal workforce," said Victor Kimm, who spent a decade as director of EPA's Drinking Water Program. "That is not trivial."
Though hard to measure, high morale is often held up as integral to government employment, especially as some federal agencies struggle to recruit new employees in the face of increasing retirements. And this time around, a shutdown poses an even greater threat to morale than in 1995, due to sequestration and the consequent furloughs, according to former senior EPA officials.
"It's probably going to be worse this time with all the other stuff going on. I think morale is already kind of crappy," said Dick Wilson, the former director of the Office of Mobile Sources in EPA's air quality bureau.
Jim Aidala, the former assistant administrator for what is now the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, pointed out the added uncertainly of a retroactive paycheck. In 1996, he said, EPA officials were fairly confident that Congress would pay employees for the days the government was shut down.
"Now it's like, boy, less than no guarantees," Aidala said.
Budget cuts also have prompted EPA to occasionally implement hiring freezes, meaning some employees are dealing with larger workloads. Those same employees have endured almost seven days of unpaid leave as the agency cut back to meet its budget under sequestration. Now the shutdown threatens more days off and thus fewer days to get their work done.
Mark Greenwood, who retired from the Office of General Counsel a few months before the 1995 shutdown, gave chemical registration as an example. Each year, EPA registers about 1,000 chemicals -- a workload that can only be accomplished efficiently by having people work every day. A shutdown of even a few days disrupts that, with applications piling up.
And other disruptions come from just planning for the shutdown, he said.
"It's a big disruption," he said. "The disruption has already started over the last month or so."
Aidala, who was associate assistant administrator at the time of the shutdowns, said supervisors had trouble getting some employees to leave. In 1996, in particular, employees were sent home for 28 days -- while the same pile of work awaited them.
"Literally, the assistant administrator went around telling people they had to leave," Aidala said, recalling one employee who was surrounded by piles of paper and almost had to be dragged out.
Public employees are not allowed to take work calls or answer emails while furloughed. They must stop work in its tracks, even in the face of court-ordered deadlines.
While a closed park means that a visitor finds somewhere else to go, a closed EPA office means the same number of permit applications or rulemaking comments.
"The longer it goes on, the more that backlog continues, and then it's not like you suddenly don't have to do it," he said.
There was also uncertainty about the effectiveness of EPA's Superfund program, charged with cleaning up hazardous waste sites around the country.
Elliott Laws, who oversaw EPA's Superfund program during the last shutdown as assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said the agency had enough cash in the fund the last time around to keep cleanups going. But as the second shutdown dragged on into 1996, the agency presented lists to lawmakers about which sites were priorities.
EPA laid out a contingency plan stating that Superfund cleanup would continue at sites where a failure to maintain operations would pose an imminent threat to human life. And many Superfund sites are funded with cash from sources outside annual appropriations, so cleanup would likely stay on track, but EPA's oversight of those activities could be limited under a prolonged shutdown.
"It's clearly something that for a short term the agency can get through," Laws said. "If it drags on, you start getting into a different situation."
Any disruption in cleanup or oversight would send a bad signal to those communities, he added. "They wait so long to have some action taken to remove this contamination. It's damaging to the communities, it hurts the agency in its mission and in its commitments that it makes to communities."
The threat of a shutdown also brings up concerns about EPA's readiness if disaster strikes.
"EPA has responsibility for emergency response, that is responding to events that involve chemical spills or events like the BP oil spill," Cannon said. Under a shutdown, "the fact that people aren't there, aren't ready and aren't on the job ... I think there is some delay or inhibition in the responsiveness of the system."
Kimm was more optimistic, pointing out that EPA probably kept emergency coordinators on the job and would be able to call back employees if a disaster occurred.
"My guess is the crew would get out. There's a great deal of spirit of commitment to the mission," Kimm said, but he acknowledged that "if there were a spill, it would make it harder to manage."