If four federal agencies closed their doors, would anyone notice?
This is no philosophical experiment Friday when, thanks to sequestration, the IRS, EPA, HUD and OMB turn a normal workday into an unpaid holiday for nearly all of their employees.
In all, about 115,000 people — roughly 5 percent of the federal workforce — won’t be on the clock for the day. Staffers for the Labor and Interior departments will also get an extra unpaid day for their Memorial Day weekend.
It’s an important moment for Congress and the Obama administration as they continue to battle over mandatory budget cuts, that Democrats continue to warn will mean real consequences while most Republicans claim Democrats are just crying wolf.
Republicans wanted to permanently close several government agencies during the 2012 presidential campaign. On Friday, they’ll get a partial victory when two departments they despise — the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency — take a timeout.
“The more days the IRS is closed, the better our economy will probably do,” Rep. Steve Scalise said. Of EPA, the Louisiana lawmaker who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee added, “I think China will be unhappy if the EPA closes down on Friday. That’s fewer jobs that they’ll be getting from us.”
Democrats see things a bit different. More than 830,000 federal employees have already been told they’ll need to take unpaid leave before the end of the fiscal year because of the sequester, and Friday brings the largest nonweather related partial government shutdown in recent memory.
It may be good management to let workers who might have otherwise taken time off for the holiday complete one of their designated furlough days. But they fret over low morale and a public unable to get help on tax forms or requesting housing vouchers.
“People will be calling up because they have legitimate business and wondering why is no one answering my phone,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee holding the purse strings for the EPA and Interior Department, told POLITICO.
Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), a leading critic of the sequester, called the spending cuts a “slow drip poison” that will trickle down on Friday to restaurants and other small-business owners who depend on federal workers to be on the job all week.
“There’s no best day in my opinion,” Andrews said in an interview. “I think cutting someone’s pay by 10 or 20 percent for no good reason, there’s no good day to do that.”
Congress has stepped in to stop the furloughs in a few instances. At the Federal Aviation Administration, some 15,000 air traffic controllers were furloughed for a week last month before lawmakers passed a bill that allowed the agency to shift money around and cancel the furloughs. Warnings of food shortages and tainted meat prompted a similar move as the Agriculture Department considered sending home meat inspectors.
While the Justice, State and Homeland Security departments have so far chosen other budget-cutting maneuvers to skirt furloughs this year, many other government branches with large numbers of employees have had little other choice.
At the Pentagon, about 650,000 civilian workers will begin taking their furloughs on July 8. The Defense Department won’t be closing down like the IRS or EPA, but many of its employees will get a five-day holiday weekend around the Fourth of July.
Nearly 90,000 IRS employees will stay home Friday and for at least four other days this year — June 14, July 5, July 22 and Aug. 30 — to help come up with $600 million in budget savings. Steven Miller, who stepped down earlier this month as the acting IRS commissioner amid controversy over targeting conservative groups, told IRS employees in an April letter that they also may need to take two additional furlough days in August and September.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees housing programs across the country and already has instituted a hiring freeze, has the same days slated for closure as the IRS, plus Aug. 2 and Aug. 16. Government contractors will be able to provide the public with some resources, including a popular phone hotline for homeowners. But a senior HUD official noted there won’t be any government employees available if an issue needs to be escalated. There also won’t be any walk-in services at HUD offices for housing providers for the homeless, homeowners, real estate developers and municipalities.
The decision to send home more than 8,400 HUD workers on Friday and later this year was done “in a way in which impacts to the mission of the agency and to the general public would be minimized,” the official said.
But sources who work with HUD complained that Friday’s closure, coupled with the additional days off at the end of the fiscal year, spell trouble for anyone with urgent business on housing matters. “They can’t do everything they need to do in the five days they have now,” said Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe told his agency’s 17,700 employees in a memo on Wednesday that he’s designated July 5 and Aug. 30 as additional days where the agency would close. Perciasepe, who like other Senate-confirmed officials won’t be furloughed Friday, noted that the agency would still “maintain the capabilities to respond to any emergencies.”
Still, Marianne Horinko, a former EPA acting administrator during the George W. Bush administration, warned that “other less time-sensitive but equally important activities are being delayed” because of the furloughs, including approval of air pollution permits. “The sequester sends a terrible message that the agency’s efforts to crack down on pollution are neither valuable nor time-sensitive,” she wrote in an email.
At Interior, more than 760 employees at the U.S. Park Police started taking furloughs in late April. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in a recent interview that the furloughs presented him with difficult management decisions when dealing with security at major icons like the Lincoln Memorial and Golden Gate Bridge, as well as traffic for Washington-area events like Memorial Day weekend’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally, the July Fourth fireworks on the National Mall and performances at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Jarvis said he wouldn’t cancel any events but may make staff reductions during quieter periods later this summer.
Also at Interior, furloughs for employees of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Indian Affairs are scheduled to start soon, though a department spokeswoman said there are no plans to close either branch for a whole day.
Questions over public safety swirl around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which helped give Oklahomans crucial minutes of advance notice ahead of Monday’s deadly tornado. The first furloughs for the bureau’s 12,000-plus employees are slated for the July Fourth holiday, though spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton noted negotiations are ongoing with the employee unions and also still need a green light from Congress.
The current plan involves closing NOAA’s Washington headquarters twice in July and twice in August while keeping the National Hurricane Center open. And even if July 5 is a furlough day, Clayton said the bureau expects some employees to pick other times “to ensure that we can still provide 24/7 operations, products and services.”
“In addition, we can cancel furloughs for emergencies,” she said, citing the prospect of severe weather events, an oil spill or problems with satellites.
Rep. Frank Wolf, the House Appropriations Subcommittee chairman in charge of NOAA’s budget, said the agency should skip the furloughs altogether. The Virginia Republican wrote to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank on Wednesday urging her to shift funding around so there won’t be any forced days off. Citing the tornado that killed two dozen people in Moore, Okla., Wolf said in an interview that “if NOAA furloughs anyone, it’ll be a black eye on this administration” especially “if any accident happens, anything happens, and you can trace it back to a person who should have been there or wasn’t.”