By Cameron Rasmusson
With no end in sight to the government shutdown constricting Washington, D.C., it may well go on record as the longest in U.S. history.
That leaves government employees in a bind as they figure out how to get by without a paycheck. While it’s likely this shutdown will follow past government standoffs in restoring federal employee backpay, workers are on their own figuring out how to pay for rent or mortgages, groceries or other living essentials in the meantime. The Office of Personnel Management went so far as to advise 800,000 furloughed government employees to offer labor or otherwise barter the cost of their rent.
Reporting on the shutdown’s effects, both on individual lives and government projects or contracts, is difficult because most furloughed employees are not authorized to speak about it. But a past shutdown of comparable length, the 21-day 1995-96 standoff between President Bill Clinton and a Newt Gingrich-led Congress over entitlement cuts, may provide insight. Like President Donald Trump’s battle with Congress over funding for border security and his long-promised wall, the Clinton shutdown unfolded over several weeks through December and January.
It’s a shutdown that Dick Kramer, a retired Sandpoint District Forest Service biologist and ranger, lived through in the course of his long career. It was an aggravating-enough experience that he’s surprised Congress hasn’t developed a better system for dealing with funding crises, he said.
A Missoula, Mont.-based biologist in 1994 and 1995, Kramer said the initial reaction from some of his colleagues was almost jovial. After all, it was an unexpected vacation at the government’s expense. That good-natured view of the situation soured as the days without a paycheck piled up.
“As it dragged on, everyone starting worrying about, ‘Well, am I going to get a paycheck?’” Kramer said.
Some employees had enough money saved away to weather the shutdown crisis without incident. But others, particularly younger workers, lived paycheck to paycheck and faced a real challenge with no income for nearly a month. Some looked into receiving unemployment benefits for the shutdown duration, while others sought work in the Christmas retail rush at stores like Walmart.
Kramer recalled a particularly irritating moment when a government representative arrived to discuss how to handle the furlough. At one point, he advised the workers to “enjoy yourself. Go skiing. Get a little winter time.” Many in the office were annoyed by the glib tone when they knew it would be difficult to meet their basic necessities, never mind take a ski vacation.
Just as frustrating was the restlessness and lack of purpose resulting from be a lack of work. While a few days off here and there might be welcome, Kramer said that ultimately, most government employees want to be productive and do good work for the public. It wasn’t simply a matter of their agencies withholding a paycheck; Kramer said supervisors took active steps to ensure workers didn’t do government business during the furlough.
“It’s kind of a waste of civil dollars to have employees sit around and not do anything,” he said, later adding, “At the end of 21 days everyone was saying, ‘It’s time to go back to work. This is silly.’”
The shutdown was more wasteful than the initial cost of paying government employees to do nothing, Kramer said. There was also the disruption to ongoing projects. It took time to get back up to speed after 21 unproductive days, and some work was stymied by time-sensitive factors.
“This is the time when we’re putting contracts out to bid,” Kramer said. “There’s a danger that you might not be able to do something that you planned to do in the summer because you can’t get it out to bid.”
The sense that they were being used as pawns in a partisan game was a final insult added to injury for Kramer and his colleagues. It’s a partisanship that infects what should be neutral work, Kramer said, and it’s only become worse in recent years.
“The thing that angers me most is half the things you read about or hear about are not true,” he said.
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