By Joe Davidson September 21 at 5:00 AM
The symptom is “government disservice.”
The diagnosis is congressional “chronic dysfunction.”
It’s enough to make taxpayers and federal employees sick.
Richard Trott of the National Park Service puts up a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to the government shutdown on Tuesday October 01, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)
A new report with this diagnosis is particularly timely as Congress again toys with the American public and its workforce with another threat to shut down the government.
The title of the report, “Government Disservice,” by the Partnership for Public Service, aptly describes what Congress does when it leads the country to the brink of a shutdown, as it is doing now, or worse, as was the case two years ago when a partial shutdown closed many government operations for 16 days.
Republican opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood could result in government workers being sent home and offices closing their doors after the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. That’s getting close, yet an informal Washington Post survey indicates a number of staffers so far have heard nothing from their agencies.
“We haven’t even received an email this year about the possibility, but nothing new,” said Victoria Nellon, an IRS employee in Atlanta. “They only tell us what they have to and that’s at the last minute most times.”
That uncertainty has practical ramifications.
“My refrigerator went out, but I can’t replace it until I know there is no shutdown because I need to save my cash to pay my normal bills if I don’t get paid on time,” said Shirley Prichard, a Department of Homeland Security employee in Missouri.
The failure of Congress to approve spending bills “has become a way of life in Washington, creating tremendous uncertainty and multiple management and financial inefficiencies for government agencies,” the Partnership, a nonprofit think tank on federal government management and workforce issues, said in the report released last week.
“The negative effect on the ability of the agencies to fulfill their missions has often seemed to be of little concern to many lawmakers, some of whom are focused on using the appropriations process to win specific policy battles or to control spending and reduce the federal budget deficit.”
Complaints about partisan gridlock are not new. But this report should be read by members of Congress, particularly Republicans, because it examines “the profound way” their hyper-partisan political acrimony undercuts the ability of government agencies and staffers to service the public.
Two examples — preparing for a shutdown distracts managers from day-to-day operations and uncertain funding leads to hiring freezes, recruitment difficulties and morale problems.
Federal employees know that only too well.
“I love what I do and I’m proud of what I do. I believe I serve the American people,” Mark Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, told the Federal Diary by e-mail. “But it feels like we’re being used as pawns by our congressional bosses who have little respect for what many of us do (and in most cases probably have little idea), our time, or the actual wasting of taxpayer dollars that result in these shutdowns (and the preparations for them).
“These shutdowns” is right.
Based on reporting by The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the 2013 closure over funding for the Affordable Care Act was the 18th partial closure since 1976. The others were:
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 11, 1976 –10 days related to Pres. Gerald Ford’s veto of funding bills
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 13, 1977 — 12 days related to a congressional dispute over Medicaid abortion coverage
- Oct. 31 to Nov. 9, 1977 –8 days that dubbed “Abortion Shutdown II”
- Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, 1977 –8 days of “Abortion Shutdown Part III
- Sept. 30 to Oct.18, 1978 — 18 days following Pres. Jimmy Carter’s veto of Defense and public works bills
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 12, 1979 –11 days related to congressional disputes over pay and abortion spending
- Nov. 20-23, 1981 –2 days over disputes between Pres. Ronald Reagan and Congress related to budget cuts
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1982 — 1 day basically because the House did not pass a budget on time.
- Dec.17-21, 1982 –3 days related to White House and Capitol Hill disagreements over spending for defense and public works.
- Nov. 10-14, 1983 –3 days because Reagan and Congress disagreed about education, defense and foreign assistance spending
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, 1984 –2 days over White House and congressional differences involving crime, civil rights and water projects.
- Oct. 3-5, 1984 –1 day continuation of previous shutdown when the temporary measure meant to stop it proved inadequate.
- Oct. 16-18, 1986 –1 day over several disputes between Reagan and House Democrats.
- Dec. 18-20, 1987 — 1 day related to disagreements over the “Fairness Doctrine” for broadcasters and funding for Nicaraguan “Contra” militants.
- Oct. 5-9, 1990 — 3 daysover a deficit reduction plan difference between Pres. George H. W. Bush and Congress
- Nov. 13-19, 1995– 5 days following a clash between Pres. Bill Clinton and Congress over a balanced budget measure, Medicare and environmental regulations.
- Dec. 5, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996 — 21 days over a balancing the budget standoff between Clinton and Congress.
A shutdown this year would be a sin coming just days after the Pope’s visit to Washington and his speech on Thursday to members of Congress.
“I’m hoping that Pope Francis chastises them,” said Bruce Andersen, a Labor Department policy analyst, “and makes them see their moral failings as leaders.”
Ryan Kellett contributed to this report.
Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.