850,000 Federal Workers Could Face Furloughs Next Week

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

About 850,000 federal employees could be told not to report to work next week if Congress can’t agree on legislation to keep the government open past Dec. 22.

That’s when a continuing resolution currently funding the government is set to expire. The federal government has about 2.1 million employees, but only those deemed “essential” would be told to report to work if funding is allowed to lapse, Sean Moulton, open government manager at the Project on Government Oversight, told Bloomberg Law Dec. 18.

The chances for a partial government shutdown increase every time a new continuing resolution expires, Moulton said. The current resolution was passed and signed to avoid a shutdown that would have occurred after Dec. 8. Another resolution could be coming if Congress can’t agree by Dec. 22 on a plan for funding the government through the end of fiscal year 2018, he said.

“Every individual chance of a shutdown is relatively small,” Moulton said. “But when we keep running up to a deadline, the aggregate chance starts to increase.”

Democrats, Republicans Ready for `Fight’?

Professor Don Kettl also sees the odds of a shutdown as higher now than on Dec. 8 because of political sparring.

“The Democrats have lost on tax reform,” said Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, referring to the Republican tax bill that appears likely to pass Congress soon. “They surely won’t be inclined to give the Republicans anything that might look like a win” by agreeing to a spending bill that neglects Democratic priorities, he told Bloomberg Law.

This doesn’t mean that a shutdown is going to happen, Kettl said.

“The Democrats will do their best to make the Republicans suffer but, in the end, I don’t think this is the battle—or the time—that either party will want to make the critical fight,” he said. “The bigger question is how long an extension would the Congress pass, and when will we be back at this again?”

Broader Impact on U.S. Economy

If the government were to partially shut down, as happened for 16 days in October 2013, it could have a broader impact on the U.S. economy, Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service, told Bloomberg Law.

The 2013 shutdown cost the U.S. $24 billion in lost economic output, Bulman said, citing an analysis issued afterward by Standard & Poor’s. This included the impact of reduced spending by federal executive branch employees and by employees of organizations that receive grants and contracts from the federal government, she said.

If the government shuts down for an extended period again after Dec. 22, the costs could be greater this time because it would happen at the height of the holiday season, she said.

“If you make a decision not to go out to a restaurant” with family to celebrate the holidays “or not to buy as many gifts, you’re not going to do that in January” even if the shutdown has ended by then, Bulman said.

Moulton’s estimate of the number of federal workers that would be furloughed is based on what happened in 2013. Congress ultimately voted to pay all federal employees for the shutdown period, including both those sent home and those deemed “essential” and told to report to work.

But there’s no guarantee that the current Congress and president would handle a government shutdown the same way, he said.

The Project on Government Oversight is a Washington-based nonprofit that describes its mission as ensuring “a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

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