TOPICS > Politics

How federal agencies are able to fluctuate their furloughed workforce

October 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The government shutdown has touched hundreds of thousands of federal employees, but as the shutdown stretches on, the distinction between essential and non-essential has varied depending on agency and need. Jeffrey Brown talks to Reid Wilson of The Washington Post and Gregory Korte of USA Today for a broad look at the impact.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown looks at the bigger shutdown picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s a fluid picture with, as we heard earlier, some workers coming back, others soon to begin their furloughs if the shutdown continues.

To help us understand both the nuances and specifics, we’re joined by Reid Wilson, who runs The Washington Post blog GovBeat, and Gregory Korte, a reporter for USA Today.

Gregory, I want to start with you. Is there any way to draw a broad picture yet of the impact, or is it all agency by agency?

GREGORY KORTE, USA Today: It is very agency by agency.

We know a couple of things. One is that any political appointee is exempt from a furlough. We know that those who are essential for health or safety or protection of property, they’re exempt. And there’s also a lot of federal employees who get — who are funded by another source other than an annual appropriation from Congress, the Postal Service, the Patent and Trademark Office, those kinds of things.

So, that’s the broad outlines. But really how every agency interprets that guidance, the law of who can be furloughed and what programs remain, that is an agency-by-agency…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And that is still not clear even after a week or more in?

GREGORY KORTE: Well, no, and it changes every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

GREGORY KORTE: So, we started with about 870,000 furloughed workers maybe. That number changes just today.

Just today, the FAA brought back about 600 inspectors. But the Veterans Administration says it’s going to have to furlough about — you know, thousands of people who process claims. You had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today say that all but 300 of its 4,000 employees are going to have to be furloughed starting tomorrow because they had some carry-over funds from the last fiscal year that those run out tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I was just thinking, we heard earlier in the program about the salmonella outbreak.

GREGORY KORTE: There’s another example, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so those kinds of workers are brought back.

GREGORY KORTE: Absolutely. And you have hurricane preparedness, disaster things, as events come up, furloughed workers will return. And as the emergency dissipates, they will go back on furlough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Reid, one of the things I know you have been looking at is how this plays, trickles down into states. Explain how federal spending in a shutdown affects state programs.

REID WILSON, The Washington Post: Well, sure.

Many of the jobs in state government are actually funded by federal dollars, whether that’s, you know, a small fraction of somebody’s salary or the entire salary, whether it’s a public safety job or a national park job or something like that.

A lot of the federal workers don’t just live here in Washington, D.C. They live all around the country. California alone has 150,000 federal workers. So what we’re starting to see is the states picking up on the impacts of the shutdown, so many people being furloughed in the various states.

I will give you another example. Just after the terrible floods in Colorado last month, National Guard members from both Colorado and Utah went up into the affected communities to try to rebuild the hundreds of miles of roads that had been damaged by the floods.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, we looked a little bit at that last night’s program.

REID WILSON: There you go. And those engineers had been furloughed. So, there’s one example of a small — a small program being delayed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, so what kind of response is coming from states? Governors then have to make decisions about whether they’re going to use their funds, right, for these kinds of programs.

REID WILSON: And in a lot of cases, governors are able to use some money to cover various programs.

Governor Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania has used Pennsylvania money to keep open a program that will provide nutrition assistance for women, infant and children — women, infants and children. Pardon me. In Nevada, on the other hand, 264,000 people who are on SNAP programs or that women and infant and children programs are going to lose their assistance because Governor Brian Sandoval says he simply doesn’t have the $50 million a month it will take to keep those funds coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory, you started to talk about some of the things that will now kick in. We were talking about some workers being brought back, right, from furlough. Others are now looking, facing it in the coming days.

GREGORY KORTE: Yes, absolutely.

And as I said, it changes from day to day. Some agencies had some money left over and were allowed by Congress to carry that over into the new year. As those funds run out, the agencies are going to have to make tough decisions. Yes, it really does change. It’s a fluid furlough, is what…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, I want to ask both of you. It’s possible for many people not to feel this at all, correct?

REID WILSON: It is. If you are wealthy, if you are not on any government assistance programs — and, by the way, if the furlough, if the shutdown is averted in the next few weeks, there may be no interruption at all for some people who receive government assistance.

On the other hand, there are so many small areas in which the government has a hand that, still, people will feel an impact. If you’re trying to buy a private jet right now, the FAA can’t sign off on…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: The few people who are doing that. Right?

(CROSSTALK)

REID WILSON: The few people, one or two, who are.

If you run a craft brewery and you’re trying to get a new recipe to the market…

JEFFREY BROWN: Probably a slightly larger population.

REID WILSON: A smaller — a very small bureau of the Treasury Department won’t be able to approve that recipe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

But your sense in talking to people out in the states, in government and in business, they’re — now that we’re into this, they’re more aware than they were even a week or so ago?

REID WILSON: My sense is, the first week of this shutdown was all about what wasn’t going on in Washington and the sideshow of Harry Reid and John Boehner and President Obama going back and forth talking to each other more through the media than anything else.

This week, people are starting to feel the impact. And I think governors especially, state governments are starting to realize just how much of a hole they’re going to be in if the shutdown continues beyond another week or so.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s your sense of that, Gregory Korte, of how many people feel it and don’t feel it?

GREGORY KORTE: For the first week, it could almost seem like a long holiday weekend, right? Government offices sometimes close for three days, four days at a time, depending on the circumstances, where we are in the calender.

But, yes, in the second week, it goes beyond now the national parks. It is the Small Business Administration loans. It’s FHA. It’s a lot of things that you might be able to do without with a one-, two-day delay. As we get into the second week, heaven forbid the third week, yes, it’s going to have a real drag.

And that’s a macroeconomic aspect of this, too, that this could have a drag on the economy. Already, economists are projecting maybe a half-a-percentage point off the fourth-quarter growth in the economy from a two-week shutdown.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gregory Korte, Reid Wilson, thank you both.

REID WILSON: Thank you.