The dread shutdown is here. Partially, that is. Funding to roughly 25 percent of federal agencies ceased on midnight Friday.
It won’t be life-threatening, but it will be anxiety-producing. Essential government services — such as Defense, Homeland Security, Social Security and Medicare checks, and FDA oversight — will continue uninterrupted, as they are fully funded until September 2019.
Everyone is asking how it will affect them, but the people who are asking the question the most are those people who work in the federal government. And for them the question does not have a simple answer.
Through no fault of their own, they have been plunged into uncertainty for their paychecks. Some 420,000 employees will be laid off without pay — furloughed — for at least the duration of the shutdown. Another 380,000 are expected to work, but without pay.
The question of time off was the “biggest tension-producing thing,” said John Koskinen, a former OMB deputy director for management who weathered a 21-day shutdown in 1995-1996.
“Whether they are to be furloughed or asked to continue to report to duty, these employees would go unpaid during a lapse in appropriations and would require congressional action to ensure they are paid once agencies are back to operating normally,” Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, wrote Tuesday in a letter to congressional leaders.
Given the tendency of Washington lawmakers to perform somewhat unreliably in a crisis, federal workers are understandably tense about such matters, and are seeking clarification from the powers-that-be.
Office of Management and Budget guidelines also call for canceling paid vacation time that was previously scheduled for this time of year. While employees will probably receive salary payment for the shutdown period, as they have after past shutdowns, there is no guarantee that it will include their paid vacation time, and consequently many federal workers may get smaller paychecks in the end.
The people at the top, those responsible for the shutdown, are not burdened by such worries. Senators and Congresspeople went home for vacation, and there doesn’t seem to be any question about losing pay, even temporarily. Their decision to leave town while others are stuck working without pay does not exactly inspire confidence. Perhaps they should at least come back before they are scheduled to return, for a last session on December 27.
Even though the shutdown would not affect the president’s pay either, especially since he donates his entire salary to charity, and he would be entitled to take his seasonal vacation, President Donald Trump decided to stay with the ship. It may not be sinking, but he obviously feels that the responsible thing to do is to stay on board until it is righted again.
The president tweeted the news himself over the weekend: “I will not be going to Florida because of the Shutdown — Staying in the White House! MAGA.”
Whether he will enjoy any of the 16 days he had planned to spend with his family at his Mar-a-Lago resort remains to be seen. Preparations for his Florida stay have been made in the meantime. The security perimeter is up, with traffic cones, barricades and police cruisers at their stations.
The president could, at least theoretically, be affected in another way, however. It so happens that the Secret Service is one of the agencies whose funding has expired.
But in these times of anger and violence, it would be unthinkable for a president to go unguarded. Indeed, a senior administration official said that thousands of Secret Service employees will continue to work during the shutdown, albeit without pay.
How long will this go on?
That will depend on how soon the people at the top can settle their dispute over funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Negotiations are reportedly ongoing, but the administration and the Democrats seem no closer to a compromise than they were before the shutdown took effect.
“It’s very possible that this shutdown will go beyond the 28th and into the new Congress,” Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told ABC.
The president himself said that the shutdown could last a “very long time.”
If it does drag on past January 3, prospects for a solution might then be even bleaker, as the new Democratic majority arrives in the House of Representatives, and they are expected to be more antagonistic to Trump and less compromising than their predecessors.
On the other hand, federal paychecks will be delayed that much longer — an intolerable situation. Presumably not all of those who are supposed to report to work day after day without getting paid will actually show up. Pressure will mount on the president and Congress, whatever their ideological leanings, to be pragmatic and get the thing over with.
Democratic and Republican aides were quoted as saying that shutdown won’t run past January 3. Because then, when Democrats take over the House and, most likely, re-elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker, she could wield her new majority status to pass a measure to fund the government for a year without additional allocations for a wall.
Of course, there’s no guarantee of that either.