February 16, 2019: My Last Post (Until October 1)

On Thursday, February 14, the House of Representatives and the Senate gave a sweet valentine to Federal workers by passing the full-year appropriation, ensuring that our Agencies will be funded for the rest of the year. The President signed it on Friday, February 15. A group of us celebrated after work at a Happy Hour, toasting an end to the Great Shutdown of 2018-2019. And so, this blog comes to an end. At least, until October 1 nears…

February 12, 2019: Countdown to Midnight Friday

My posts have dropped off as I’ve returned to the normality of work, receiving back pay, waking up before the sun, etc… However, this week, it hit me that my agency is only funded through 11:59 pm Friday February 15. If Congress and the President are unable to agree on a funding package, we could be looking at yet another partial Government shutdown.

In retrospect, I realize that during the last shutdown, I was in a state of low-level but chronic anxiety. I felt the same feelings coming back yesterday, after hearing news that the negotiations for the border security had broken down. My mood lightened this morning, after a good night’s sleep and the news that the Congressional committee had agreed on a border security bill.

I know that I wasn’t alone. The Washington Post features a countdown to the next shutdown — as I write this, it reads 3 days, 4 hours, 44 minutes, and 5 seconds. Yesterday’s front page had a tearjerker article about an IRS employee who was financially devastated by the previous shutdown and is very anxious about next week. My Facebook feed includes worries about next week. My union sends daily updates on the status of funding, and today called for a grassroots effort for members to call their Members of Congress and the President this week. Ask them to ensure that federal agencies stay open for the public.

I will do contact my members of Congress again, even though I feel like that’s preaching to the choir. I’ll try to get as much done as I can this week, in case I’m out for an unspecified amount of time. I’ll plan to do some more work around the house and scanning photos if I find myself with more time. And I’ll hope that Congress and the President come to their senses and fund the government!

February 4, 2019: Furlough Humor

There was the following exchange on Facebook between colleagues of mine. I am hiding the names of the posters.

Original Facebook post (from a Federal employee who was furloughed):
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but I’m quite concerned and would appreciate advice. I went to Target today and left with only the four items on my list…

Response (from another furloughed Fed):
That is likely due to the psychological event known as “post-pre-furlough cognitive dissonance.” If the pre-furlough period does not end up in a shutdown event 2/15, you should expect complete recovery within 6 to 8 weeks. If, however, the per-furlough period does end in a shutdown, the post-event implications could last for up to a year. (P.S., if this “diagnosis” catches on, we should patent it!)

I found this exchange to be hilarious. However, note the underlying uncertainty about what happens after the temporary funding expires on 2/15.

January 30, 2019: Reflections

Someone very dear to me pointed out that many of my posts were too detached, and read like reporting. This individual had a point. I am a Federal employee and as such, I aimed to appear nonpartisan and to protect individuals’ privacy (including my own). That said, within those confines, I can share more of how the extended furlough personally affected me.

For me, I was blessed with enough savings as to not feel the financial stress that people living paycheck to paycheck felt. That said, as the shutdown dragged on, I felt the pinch. I hated making withdrawals from my savings account. I cut back on expenses. I held off on making charitable contributions. And even now, with my make-up pay deposited in my account, I wonder what will happen after February 15th. I realize that other people had it much worse than me. The following image from the Washington Post is one that is emblematic of what is clinically called the “partial government shutdown”– middle class professionals standing in a food pantry line.

A second feeling that I had was of complete helplessness. Yes, I could protest, and yes, I could write my Congressman. However, I did not get a sense that it was effective. I felt that I was preaching to the choir. I felt like a pawn in a political power play. It was very disorienting. In retrospect, perhaps images such as the the silent furloughed workers holding empty plates below (downloaded off of the web) may have influenced policy-makers. Certainly, the actions of the air traffic controllers who called in sick on January 26th had an impact.

A third feeling that I had was feeling in limbo. It was impossible to plan much of anything because who knew how long this furlough would last. We could be out another month or two, or called back to work the next day. As a planner, I found this maddening.

Like many others, I had trouble sleeping. In my case, typically, I would fall asleep but wake up 5 hours later, unable to fall back asleep. My rhythm was disturbed. I later heard of furloughed workers who made sure that they went to bed and woke up at their regular time; perhaps that might have served me well.

I did find constructive things to do. Several years worth of clutter was tossed, recycled, or given to Goodwill. I cooked a lot, using new recipes and ingredients. I spent time with family and friends. I read a few books. And I started this blog. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.

Finally, I felt that, even as a pawn, I was a bit player in a very interesting historical moment. However, I fervently hope that I don’t have to do a repeat performance in 2 1/2 weeks.

January 29, 2019: Lasting Impacts of the Partial Government Shutdown

This article from Government Executive spells out some of the lasting impacts from the 5-week partial Government shutdown.

Unanswered emails, outdated websites and unprocessed grant correspondence greeted hundreds of thousands of federal employees on Monday morning as they returned from the 35-day partial government shutdown. In Government Executive interviews, employees seemed fully aware that the lost productivity—to say nothing of their own financial hardships—will affect work lives far into the future.

“It’s going to be horrendous,” said Thomas Burger, executive director of the Professional Managers Association and retired from the audits division of the Internal Revenue Service. “Everyone’s worried about when they will they look at those cases that were dropped on Dec. 21,” their last day before the appropriations lapse. They have been wondering, he said, whether all the W-2 and 1099 taxpayer forms were issued. “Hopefully people were monitoring them and [estimated quarterly income] checks were coming in” and people were keeping track of which statutes are expiring, he said.

The 2017 tax cut still being implemented contained “the biggest tax law changes since 1986,” Burger noted, citing hundreds of forms that need revisions, including capital gains and depreciation forms that must go out to the tax service industry. “In a good year when we were fully staffed and budgeted, this would be a monumental task,” he said. “But the budget has been slashed, and we lost 27,000 employees.” Even though much of the tax agency’s information technology staff was working, “they’re stretched thin,” he said. So the usual expectation that tax return processors can “flip a switch” and begin the annual process is jeopardized by the new tax law and the shutdown. “And without work and two paychecks, the sad stories are coming,” said Burger, whose employee association, like others, must cope with a skipped automatic deduction dues payment caused by the shutdown. “How long it will take for morale to recover? I don’t want to even venture a guess.”

At the Census Bureau, the 35 days of idleness “will impact economic statistics for years,” said an employee via email, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We were in the middle of reviewing data for the 2017 Economic Census (published every five years). It’s important to get the census data clean, as it affects the sample surveys mailed out at the end of each of the intervening years. Not being able to review the reported data will set back the entire processing cycle (data collection, micro-review, imputation of delinquents and non-mails, macro-review and publication),” he said. “Lord knows when we’ll be able to begin the review of the 2018 data for areas that have annual surveys in order to get ready for the mail out of the 2019 sample surveys at the end of this year,” he said a day before President Trump and congressional leaders announced a temporary end to the shutdown. “I’m not sure what will be done to catch up.” (Preparations for the constitutionally mandated decennial population census have remained funded.)

Agencies that fund or perform scientific research are likely to feel the shutdown’s ill effects not just on Monday but gradually over time. Because the National Science Foundation was largely shuttered, “American scientists have lost out on more than 400 grants valued at over $139.2 million,” according to a statement and tally by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

So far this year, 84 grant-funding review panels have been canceled, and will now have to be rescheduled. NSF had 1,397 staff furloughed and 72 excepted and working, according to David Verardo, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403 at NSF. In one week in January, he told Government Executive, 19 grant merit review panels scheduled to review 486 research proposals were canceled. The following week saw cancellation of 48 panels slated to review 656 proposals. “For every week of a shutdown, conservatively, it backs up our process by about four weeks,” Verardo said. “That’s on top of having not gotten a full budget on Oct. 1, though we got a few dollars in the continuing resolution.”

But those canceled panels are simply the new proposals, he cautioned. Every year, people who do grant research “have to file an annual report to be read and approved by program directors, so unless your report was in and approved before Dec. 22, you didn’t get approval and didn’t get your money.” Psychologically, staff being forced to stay home or work without pay “up to certain point can roll with things,” Verardo said. “But no one can roll with an extended shutdown, especially with president saying this could go on for years–an astounding statement.”

And over the long haul, the shutdown could discourage recruitment among young people “looking at science as a career,” he added. The younger generation people already “know that they’re not likely to have the same job for 20-30 years. But now they’re wondering whether they can even get a job doing research, given the few tenure-tracks jobs” available on campuses, he added. “It’s one of the unanticipated consequences” created by the “people who set these forces in motion.”

“The thought of returning to my work email after such a long time away … is rather daunting,” said an employee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who spoke before reporting to work Monday on condition of anonymity. “The first order of business will be to see if I’m even able to log into my computer and email system without IT help desk assistance. I’m guessing all my account passwords are starting to expire. Once I’m into my email, I’m expecting there will be hundreds if not thousands of messages waiting,” which might take several days to respond to, he said. “I’ll probably try to find constituent requests for assistance first and address those as quickly as possible,” the employee continued. “I probably also have questions from some of the contractors that work with me regarding projects they were working on that will need immediate attention.” But compared with the alternative of continued (or renewed) shutdown? The NOAA staffer said, “I’ll appreciate going back to the office.”

January 29, 2019: Automatic Continuing Resolutions, Revisited

Earlier on these pages, I applauded Senator Mark Warner’s Stop STUPIDITY Act, which would cause Government appropriations to go into automatic pilot in the event that Congress and the President are unable to agree on how to fund the Government. The Washington Post and Slate Magazine have both weighed into Warner’s proposal, as well as a competing proposal from Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). I’m printing today’s editorial. I’ve highlighted the downside. Comments are welcome.

THE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE reported Monday that the five-week government shutdown cost the country $3 billion that it will never get back, with substantial pain for individuals who went unpaid and businesses that lost customers. With another closure looming, two senators are pushing bills they say would end shutdowns once and for all. Both proposals have risks.

Don’t get us wrong: We’re against shutdowns. Lost billions are just one measure of the latest. Five million pieces of mail went unopened at the Internal Revenue Service during the five-week hiatus, and the National Taxpayer Advocate said it will take the agency a year to dig out, even as it implements a big new tax law. Federal recruiting surely will take a hit. The shutdown showed how much Americans rely on competent government services, but it will hobble the government’s ability to attract the talented workers it needs to provide them.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have introduced competing bills that would automatically continue previous spending if Congress failed to pass new spending bills. The budget would essentially run on autopilot.

The problem is that giving lawmakers a fallback option limits “the incentive for one party or the other to go to the table to negotiate a new spending bill,” the Brookings Institution’s Sarah Binder wrote us in an email. “That limits Congress’s ability to respond to changing agendas or emergencies that might require shifts in spending priorities.” Government agencies cannot plan long-term, pursue new projects or end failing ones when their funding levels are tied tightly to previous appropriations.

The bills recognize this downside and offer alternative solutions. Mr. Portman would begin across-the-board spending cuts, hitting defense and non-defense spending, after 120 days, as an incentive to negotiate. That might work, but there is a danger that anti-spending insurgents would welcome the opportunity to force down federal spending. Mr. Warner’s, by contrast, would withhold funding from Congress and the White House until lawmakers agreed on new appropriations bills. Of course, a future Congress could cancel both these forcing mechanisms while keeping spending on autopilot.

Lawmakers may judge that the disruption caused by shutdowns, and the difficulty of compromising on a budget, justify adopting a new mechanism, no matter how risky. But it might be better to start by adopting another of Mr. Warner’s ideas: to withhold congressional and White House operations money if Congress fails to pass new funding bills. The government might still shut down — but lawmakers and their staffs would share the pain. That might help them see the wisdom of reopening the government a lot more quickly.

Slate Magazine has an article supporting the automatic continuing resolution. Below is a snippet from the article.

Sure enough, there’s already legislation from Senate Democrats to do just that. Earlier this month, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner introduced the Stop STUPIDITY Act. Though the acronym—“Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In the coming Years Act”—is a cheat (Where’s the “T”? Who hid the “c”?), the idea itself could work. It would automatically fund the government at existing levels if a deal isn’t reached—except for the legislative branch and the executive office of the president.

As I wrote earlier this month, the trick in writing an effective automatic CR is ensuring that it doesn’t give Congress an incentive to stay stuck in continuing-resolution limbo forever, and taking pay away until budget agreements are reached could be such an incentive. That doesn’t mean the bill is perfect. It’s a little much to threaten the incomes of low-paid staffers instead of the members, senators, and president exclusively. And even then, the policy would spare independently wealthy politicians from the pain it’s designed to inflict. But it’s a viable starting point, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered his support for it over the weekend.

Many Senate Republicans, though, have their own preferred bill. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman recently introduced the End Government Shutdowns Act, a bill he has put forward to every Congress since his 2010 election, which would create an automatic CR that cuts spending by modest increments the longer it takes Congress to pass proper spending bills. The knock Democrats have on this bill is that conservatives might be happy to live with the automatic CR forever, since “forever” would mean “bigger and bigger cuts.”