US Could Lose Money, Not Save It, By Keeping Workers Home
Nov. 13, 1995
WASHINGTON (AP) _ About 800,000 workers stay home. No one answers the IRS hotline or gives White House tours. Even garbage collection pauses in the nation's capital. Sounds like a government shutdown would save the United States some money.
No, it would probably cost millions. Even hundreds of millions.
Shutting down the elephantine U.S. government isn't cheap or easy. For one thing, many jobs _ from manning military bases to cooking for the president _ are considered too important to suspend, so 60 percent of the 2.1 million civilians in the federal workforce would remain on the job.
Employees whose work isn't considered essential, including those who answer calls to the IRS and Social Security hotlines and staff museums and monuments, would be sent home. But traditionally, Congress has awarded them back pay for the time missed through no fault of their own.
The government also loses money it would have made from uncollected fees and fines, gift shop sales at museums, camping charges at national parks and other sources. And there are late charges if the government fails to pay its bills on time.
So when Congress and the president deadlock over how to spend tax dollars, they end up spending even more.
The last time budget wrangling caused a federal shutdown, in 1990, it cost the government almost $3.4 million in lost work and revenue, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
A shutdown beginning Tuesday would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, GAO estimates suggest.
The 1990 shutdown fell on the long Columbus Day holiday weekend, when most offices were closed anyway. A similar shutdown on three weekdays would cost $240 million to more than $600 million, the GAO estimated in 1991, counting only the toll on the government's 22 largest agencies.
``The costs would likely be considerably higher today,'' said John Tavares, an analyst who worked on the 1991 report.
How much? No one knows. There's just not enough information to guess, Tavares said: ``Nobody's crazy enough to try it.''
Shutdowns occur when Congress and the president can't agree on legislation to extend the spending authority of government agencies. For most federal agencies, that spending power was set to expire at midnight.
It's happened four times since 1981, when a U.S. attorney general's opinion made clear that the agencies couldn't keep spending money without official permission. The 1990 shutdown was the only one not resolved within one day. But this time, the disagreement is especially bitter.
Several people who braved a cold drizzle Monday to see the museums and monuments along the National Mall weren't happy with the impasse between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.
``It's ridiculous and very childish,'' said Janice Morse of Lake Worth, Fla., who arrived Sunday night and was angry that the shutdown might spoil her four-day visit.
``I'm trying to see all I can today,'' said Morse, who had raced through three Smithsonian museums and was headed to a fourth by midday.
As the deadline for compromise drew nearer, museum volunteer Estelle Keren told tourist after tourist that she didn't know whether the Smithsonian would be open Tuesday.
``I think it's a bunch of politics,'' Keren said from behind the information desk at the Museum of Natural History. ``Sickening politics.''
Nationwide, government workers were making last-minute plans for the shutdown. Most were told to come to work Tuesday as usual, even though they might be sent home. Their bosses couldn't tell them whether they would be furloughed, or how long it would last.
``We're reading the papers and looking at the television just everybody else,'' said Paula Foster-Pierce, who manages the local Social Security offices.
A shutdown also falls hard on the District of Columbia, which relies on federal money for much of its budget. Without spending approval, the city would keep schools and hospitals open but close libraries and postpone garbage pickup.
NASA planned to keep just enough employees on hand to assist the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which launched Sunday.
``You have made the list of critical personnel that can report to work,'' Mission Control jokingly told the crew Monday.
``We'll all sleep better now,'' replied Atlantis' skipper, Kenneth Cameron.