Politics & Government

Overshadowed in shutdown showdown — the likely blowback from 2 million federal employees

A sign noting the shutdown of all national parks is posted in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Oct. 1, 2013, the first day the last government shutdown. The 2013 shutdown lasted 17 days and forced 800,000 federal workers off the job. Another federal shutdown could occur late this week if Congress and the White House cannot resolve disputes over spending, immigration and other issues.
A sign noting the shutdown of all national parks is posted in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Oct. 1, 2013, the first day the last government shutdown. The 2013 shutdown lasted 17 days and forced 800,000 federal workers off the job. Another federal shutdown could occur late this week if Congress and the White House cannot resolve disputes over spending, immigration and other issues. AP

Many Democrats and Republicans say they are willing to shut down the government if they don’t get a spending deal that suits their demands on immigration and other issues. But engaged in brinkmanship, lawmakers from California and other states must also weigh the consequences to a key constituency — two million federal employees.

A government shutdown would immediately cause federal agencies to furlough roughly 800,000 of these workers, some of whom were forced to temporarily forgo paychecks during the last shutdown, four years ago. Lawmakers face a deadline of midnight Friday to keep funding the government, or else trigger a repeat of 2013.

California faces the largest potential impact, since it is home to more federal civilian employees, 140,000, than any other. It also is represented by two U.S. senators and numerous other Democrats who insist that this week’s negotiations include a solution for the Dreamers, some 700,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to this country illegally by their parents.

With the Friday deadline looming, the union representing the most federal workers — the American Federal of Government Employees — has been pressing lawmakers from both parties to compromise, said Jacque Simon, the AFGE’s policy director. While federal employees can’t lobby their lawmakers on government time, they can do so while off the clock, and AFGE has been sending out alerts to mobilize.

During the 2016 election cycle, AFGE spent on $1.5 million on lobbying and $7.7 million on overall political contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The union represents 700,000 federal employees.

“We take it very seriously,” said Simon, regarding the possibility of a shutdown. “We are watching every twist and turn.”

We take it very seriously. We are watching every twist and turn.

Jacque Simon, policy director for the American Federal of Government Employees

Stan Collender, who has tracked budget brinkmanship for four decades, said lawmakers from certain states and districts ignore the federal workforce at their own peril.

“Senators or representatives who have a large concentration of federal employees, they have to pay attention to this,” said Collender, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and former editor of the Federal Budget Report. “This is a major industry in many states.”

California, Virginia, Maryland and Texas are states with the largest numbers of federal civilian employees, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lawmakers from those states face conflicting pressures amid the fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump has threatened to end without support for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Senator Marco Rubio talks in Miami about the possibility of a government shutdown if an agreement on DACA is not reached.

During last month’s budget showdown, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, voted for a continuing resolution to keep the government open, even though the deal did not include a DACA extension, as many House Democrats had demanded. Kaine said he voted for the resolution to protect federal employees, but was harshly criticized by protesters, who occupied his office, yelling, “Shame on Kaine.”

California’s two senators avoided that fate by voting against the resolution, including Dianne Feinstein, who had initially indicated she would vote for it. But Feinstein is confronting a re-election challenge from Kevin de Leon, the Democratic leader of the California State Senate, who has criticized her for not standing up for California’s Dreamers.

During the current budget showdown, California Sen. Kamala Harris has emerged as one of her party’s most hardline advocates for a DACA deal. At a recent press conference, Harris said she wouldn’t vote for a spending package if DACA’s future had not yet been resolved.

Asked about the potential consequences to federal employees, spokesman Tyrone Gayle said: “Senator Harris believes we should both fund the government and protect the more than 200,000 Dreamers in California from deportation. It is deeply unfortunate that Republicans who control the House, Senate and White House are rejecting bipartisan compromises...”

If lawmakers are unable to agree on another short-term spending resolution by Friday night, federal agencies that are not self-funded could face immediate closure. President Trump would have to decide which federal services are “essential.” During the 2013 impasse, President Barack Obama determined that the Pentagon, air traffic controllers and TSA were essential, along with workers who fed the animals at the National Zoo.

Roughly 1.3 million federal employees continued working during the shutdown, although they weren’t paid until it was over, 17 days later. Overall, some 800,000 employees at “non-essential” agencies were furloughed, and were only paid back after Congress authorized it.

This time, experts are uncertain if Trump and the GOP-led Congress would agree to pay back furloughed workers. Collender notes that Trump campaigned on downsizing the federal workforce, and may see some political benefit in shutting down the government and sending thousands of federal employees home, especially if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall.

“Given what the president has been been through the last week, he may decide he needs to show his base he is still fighting for them,” said Collender. “That is the kind of emotional thing that gets you a government shutdown.”

While Trump is no friend of government employees, AFGE’s Simon said it’s a myth that Republicans are generally hostile to the federal workforce. In red-state Georgia, some 40,000 civilian federal employees work at the state’s numerous military installations. “There are plenty of Republican lawmakers who are supportive of the work of federal workers,” she said.

There would also be economic ripples from a government shutdown. In 2013, the loss of paychecks triggered an estimated 2 to 4 percent drop in spending among federal workers, who delayed expenditures on restaurants, babysitting and other expenses, according to a 2014 Stanford University study.

Constantine Yannelis, an economist who authored the study, said a shutdown this year would probably cause little effect, if it lasted just a few days. The impact would grow larger the longer the impasse continued, he said, and depend on whether Congress ultimately repaid workers who were furloughed.

The 2013 shutdown also forced the closure of national parks and wildlife refuges nationwide, prompting rangers to place “CLOSED” signs at park entrances and hurting nearby tourism businesses. While January isn’t a prime time for park visitors, Collender said certain tourism businesses should brace themselves.

“If you have a business that depends on a national park, it will start to bite immediately,” he said.

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth

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