With much of the government at risk of a forced vacation next month, there are some obvious parallels with the last such showdown, which resulted in back-to-back closures in late 1995 and early 1996. A bitter battle over spending; a Democratic president pitted against Republican lawmakers, many of them freshmen itching to shrink the federal footprint.
The last time around, though, executive branch preparations appear to have started a lot sooner.
Consider some evidence gleaned from congressional testimony: On August 22, 1995—almost three full months before the first shutdown occurred that November–then-Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin told all department heads to update their shutdown contingency plans within two weeks, according to a memo that was accompanied by a legal opinion outlining what government functions could continue during a “funding hiatus.” The congressional hearing record also shows that at least one agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had worked out a deal by September 1995 with the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees on how to handle shutdown-related furloughs.
Now, barely a week before the March 4 expiration of a continuing resolution could trigger a new shutdown, union leaders say they’re still trying to pry basic information out of agencies on how workers would be affected.
The overall status of shutdown preparations is anyone’s guess. Most agencies won’t discuss the subject or release copies of their contingency plans. Asked earlier this week when six major departments, included Defense, Justice, and Agriculture, had most recently updated those plans, the Office of Management and Budget instead provided a statement from chief spokesman Ken Baer that said in part: “OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course — and so are all the agencies.”
A more forthright assessment came from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. In a Wednesday email to SSA employees, Astrue wrote:
“The truth is that we do not know what Congress will do. We are working hard to deliver the best possible result from Congress and to carefully manage the money we do receive.
“As we await congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work. You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze.
“I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly. Given all of the uncertainty, I encourage you to be careful about believing everything you hear. I will continue to share what we know as more information becomes available.”