As the House and Senate begin a political dance this week that includes the threat of shutting down the government over steep budget cuts passed by the House, many federal employees already know the steps.
The last government shutdown was 15 years ago, but the experience stuck with agency employees who lived through the tumultuous budget fight in late 1995 and early 1996. The twin government shutdowns that resulted from those skirmishes resulted in about a month of halted government operations -- except for those whose work was deemed "essential" by congressional and department direction.
At U.S. EPA's Atlanta office, furloughed employees formed a band called "The Nonessentials."
The director of the National Science Foundation found himself answering the phone.
And the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used officers from the agency's little-known uniformed service to fill critical gaps left by civilian bureaucrats who were sent home.
Now, with lawmakers attempting to craft a compromise spending bill before March 4, when the current stopgap bill is set to expire, federal employees are looking to those earlier shutdowns as a preview of what may come.
House Republicans plan to bring a two-week continuing resolution (CR) to the floor this week that has not yet provoked an automatic rejection from Senate Democrats -- providing hope of at least postponing a shutdown. Still, contingency plans are being made. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said in a statement that the bill "sounds like a modified version of what Democrats were talking about." The short-term bill omits any language blocking EPA's funding for climate regulations and would cut $4 billion in government spending.
White House press secretary Jay Carney Friday avoided taking a stance on the short-term bill, but said, "We believe that a compromise can be reached."
"All of us agree that a government shutdown would be bad for the economy," he said.
At NOAA, a wayward trip down memory lane
For federal employees, the old experience was bad for some, but not for others.
At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half the agency's 12,000 employees were allowed to remain on the job during the 1995-1996 shutdowns.
"The biggest piece of NOAA is the weather service, and basically we considered weather forecasts and monitoring to be an essential government function," said D. James Baker, who ran NOAA from 1993 to 2001 and now directs the Clinton Foundation's Global Carbon Measurement Program. "I'm almost certain we did not keep the administrative people, but all of the weather forecasters and people who work on weather satellites and space weather satellites stayed on."
That doesn't mean the shutdown was smooth sailing for the oceans agency.
Although satellites, weather stations and other monitoring equipment continued to collect weather and climate data, climate research ground to a halt. "A lot of the NOAA long-term climate observations are automated, so there was no need to have any people associated with all of that," Baker said.
NOAA was also forced to shutter its 12 national marine sanctuaries, locking out recreational fishermen and divers. The agency's top management was whittled down to Baker, his deputy and a handful of senior employees allowed to stay to ensure an orderly shutdown of NOAA's operations.
But Baker did have an ace up his sleeve: NOAA's in-house uniformed service, the NOAA Corps. Its 300-plus commissioned officers fly the agency's specialized aircraft, pilot its research ships and conduct diving operations, in addition to filling other administrative and research posts.
During the shutdown, the entire NOAA Corps was allowed to stay on the job. So Baker used some of those officers to plug administrative holes left by furloughed civilian employees.
At EPA, a lockout of 'nonessentials'
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the 18,000 employees on EPA's payroll could not set foot on the premises. Each day, their lifeline to the office was dialing in to hear a fresh phone message recorded by then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner that was designed to give her employees an update on the shutdown. The message was so popular that employees from other federal agencies called in to check out the updates, one former top EPA official told ClimateWire.
"Nonessential" employees were actually barred from showing up at the office -- even on a volunteer basis because of fair labor laws. That left EPA employees scrambling to finish up their work before they had to leave the premises. Eric Schaeffer, who worked as the director of EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement, remembered literally e-mailing out a new audit policy that his team finished and handing it off to people as he was walking out the door.
After the official word of the shutdown came and employees were sent home, it was like a ghost town in EPA headquarters, said Fred Hansen, who then held the No. 2 spot in EPA as its deputy administrator. Most people walking the halls were there to check that the heating, sprinkler and theft systems were all still working, he said.
"Carol Browner and I would walk through headquarters and no one was there. When we saw people working, we were required to tell them to go home," said Hansen, who now works as a private consultant and sits on the board of CALSTART.
In the agency's regional offices, it was a similar scene. "Virtually nothing was going on in those offices," said Hansen. "Most of the permitting authorities are authorized or delegated to the states, and they couldn't do much without their staff," he said.
At the State Department: 'monstrously stupid' things
Former State Department Undersecretary for Global Affairs Tim Wirth was brokering an agreement on mining at a biodiversity conference in Jakarta when he was told to pack it in.
"I was chairing a meeting in Indonesia, and the secretary's office called and said, 'You have to come home.' I said, 'OK,' and then I thought about it and said, this is not going to last more than a day or two," recalled Wirth, now president of the U.N. Foundation.
Scheduled to fly next to Australia and then on to the South Pole, he canceled his plans, took personal leave and hunkered down in Indonesia.
"I figured it was not a good use of taxpayer money to fly all the way home ... and then fly all the way back," he said. A major meeting with the Australian government leading up to the Kyoto climate negotiations went by the wayside while he waited for the green light to begin work again. Meanwhile, Wirth's counterparts at the biodiversity conference joked that he was probably too nervous to fly home.
"They said, 'I know why you're staying here. You're worried the air traffic controllers will stop working,'" Wirth said. The shutdown, he said, was "monstrously stupid."
A dozen NOAA research vessels were out to sea when the shutdown began.
"The plan was to have them stay at sea if the shutdown would be short," said Baker. "They would come back if the shutdown were long. It turned out it was long enough to give the order to come back, but then the shutdown stopped shortly after that."
Wait, and then hurry up
Federal employees hunted for things to do in their downtime to keep morale up. Some EPA employees volunteered at local environmental organizations to help clean up creeks and communities or teach special environmental seminars at local schools, said Tom Link, executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, EPA's employee union. Still others in Atlanta formed a rock band and put on local shows, said two other former EPA officials.
Neal Lane, who headed the National Science Foundation during the shutdown, said worries about employee morale also weighed heavily. At one point, he and Deputy Director Ann Petersen wandered through the agency's Arlington, Va., headquarters, shaking the hands of their vastly diminished staff.
"You would do anything you could to make people realize they were appreciated, because the politicians, the Republicans, had said some really outrageous things about government employees," he said. "One senator said, 'The government shut down? Who noticed?'"
EPA's shutdown brought permitting activities -- which were largely performed at local and regional offices -- to a grinding halt, so that construction could not move forward, three former top EPA officials said in interviews. Rulemaking and Superfund cleanup work that were not categorized as emergencies also took a backseat. With many of EPA's rulemakings mandated by statute or court orders, any time away from the office made making such deadlines tighter, they said.
"It's not like snow days at the end of a school year. You can't pick those days back up," said Hansen. "Could I point to a specific rule that was delayed by five days because of the shutdown? No. But the issue was that things were stalled and they were important protections of public health and the environment," he said.
One senior manager of EPA research explained that bench scientists were mostly barred from performing their work unless it involved live animals that needed to be tended.
Rulemakers wonder what the new rules will be
For NSF's Lane, one memory stands out: "I remember sometimes even answering the NSF phone -- 'Hello, National Science Foundation, please hold,'" he said. "That's the sort of situation we were in."
Now federal employees are worried about what sort of planning is going into preparing for another potential shutdown and what safeguards will be in place for their jobs and pay.
"OMB early on begins to work with agencies to, first of all, explain the rules -- and then make sure everybody is on board. ... That got started well ahead of the actual shutdown [in 1995]," said Lane, now a physics professor at Rice University and senior fellow at the school's Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Link said that receiving retroactive pay was a large concern for employees in the 1990s -- especially employees who were living paycheck to paycheck or government contractors. Last week, Charles Orzehoskie, the president of EPA's employee union, wrote to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to ask for an update on what is being done to prepare for a shutdown.
"The possibility of a furlough, and the lack of information about plans for the furlough, has caused working conditions which are not conducive to employee morale, efficiency, or effectiveness," he wrote. "The Union has not received any information from the Agency concerning its plan for dealing with furloughs," he added, asking for a meeting in the next several days.
Without more current information, union officials have been passing out materials and protocols from the 1995 shutdown to give employees an idea of what to expect, said Link.
No matter what plans are laid out, agencies can never be completely prepared, said Jon Cannon, who served as general counsel for EPA during the last shutdown and currently heads the University of Virginia Law School's Environmental and Land Use Law Program. "There was certainly some advanced planning ... but these things come up quickly and you never know if they are going to occur or how long they will last. That's beyond the agency's control" he said.
When the shutdown ended in early January 1996, NSF employees returned to find more than 20 large mail-room carts overflowing with a month's worth of research grant proposals and other mail. But not everyone took their old jobs back.
"We lost some employees who had to find whatever job they could," NSF's Lane said. "Some people were living on not-very-high salaries. We also lost some of our contract people, and some small contractors went out of business. A shutdown hits the private sector pretty hard -- it doesn't just penalize government employees."
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