TOPICS > Politics

The Shutdown of the Federal Government

November 14, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: A cold, heavy rain swept through Washington this morning, weather befitting the mood of thousands of federal government employees. They dutifully headed for their jobs, many of them knowing they would get there–

EMPLOYEE: And then turn around and get sent home, which makes no sense at all.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nadyne Morgan, a secretary with the Internal Revenue Service, wasn’t sure what was going to happen to her.

NADYNE MORGAN, Internal Revenue Service: It’s just a little unsettling because my job is my only means of support because I’m also a student. So if I don’t have a job, I can’t afford to go to class.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s those government employees considered non-essential who were furloughed today, 800,000 nationwide, 140,000 in the Washington area alone. But if tradition holds, Congress will make sure they eventually get paid for the time they miss. Ron Brown, who also works for the IRS, guesses he’s been through eight or nine furloughs.

RON BROWN, Internal Revenue Service: According to the federal diary yesterday, there was an agreement worked out with Gingrich and some representative from Virginia, and it was a signed paper, guaranteed that all federal employees who are furloughed because it’s not their fault will get paid, so I’ve been through this before. I’ve in the federal government quite a few years. And every time this has happened, we always get paid.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those not affected by the government shutdown are military and law enforcement personnel, air traffic controllers, and Amtrak workers. Veterans hospitals stay open and mail service continues. Social Security, Medicare, and welfare checks will be sent out on time, but new applications won’t be processed during the shutdown. Here in Washington, the city government, whose budget has yet to be approved by Congress, shut down some services. The national monuments and museums closed down, although at the National Gallery of Art, this group of high school students was ushered in after a brief delay because theirs was a scheduled tour. The government has to shut down because it’s not authorized to spend any more money. The 1996 fiscal year began October 1st, but to date, only two of thirteen spending bills for the new fiscal year have been approved by Congress and signed by the President. The government’s been operating under what’s called a continuing resolution, extending last year’s spending authority, but that authority expired at midnight.

LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff: Our goal is to try to do everything possible to try to see if we cannot resolve this crisis.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta represented the President in closed-door talks with congressional budget leaders. He entered the meeting knowing the President won’t sign another continuing resolution until Republicans remove from it a provision that would eliminate a reduction in Medicare premiums that’s scheduled to take effect January 1st. For their part, Republicans are demanding the President agree in principle to balancing the federal budget within seven years.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI, Budget Committee Chairman: And we’ve got to make some headway in getting a commitment as to a balanced budget that will respond to the very hard work we have put in, not necessarily our budget, but clearly that will be a response committing the President to move in that direction.

KWAME HOLMAN: The leaders emerged later, still far apart on the issues, but sounding somewhat conciliatory. However, this afternoon, President Clinton directly blamed the Republicans for the budget standoff and vowed never to accept their plan.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I strongly believe their budget plan is bad for America. I believe it will undermine opportunity, make it harder for families to do the work that they have to do, weaken our obligations to our parents and our children, and make our country more divided. So I will continue to fight for the right kind of balanced budget.

KWAME HOLMAN: And as for the hundreds of furloughed federal workers–

PRESIDENT CLINTON: They’re the people who process our Social Security applications, help our veterans apply for benefits, care for the national parks that are our natural heritage. They conduct the medical research that saves people’s lives. They are important to America, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I will do everything I can to see that they receive back pay and that their families do not suffer because of this.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Matthew McConkey, a U.S. Customs Service lawyer, says federal workers already have suffered enough.

MATTHEW McCONKEY, U.S. Customs Service: I’ve been with the federal government about four and a half years now. It’s gotten real disheartening, I think the last year and a half. I mean, this whole thing just matches. I mean, I think the government workers have become ping-pong balls here in Washington, and I think they’re driving people away. Very few friends of mine who went to law school with me would want to work for the federal government anymore. It’s just not a good place to work anymore.

KWAME HOLMAN: And with no end to the shutdown in sight, federal workers will continue to feel like the real losers in this budget battle.

TOM BEARDEN: In the foothills west of Denver, Connie Rudd left her home this morning at 7 AM headed for the National Park Service Intermountain Office. She’s an assistant superintendent, one of some 34,000 federal employees who work for 39 different agencies in the Denver-Boulder area. When Rudd arrived at her office this morning, she was greeted with a host of messages on her computer.

CONNIE RUDD: Well, 12 messages regarding shutdown.

TOM BEARDEN: Rudd’s supervisor, Intermountain Field Director John Cook, finally called her in to deliver the official word shortly after 8:30.

JOHN COOK: Closedown is officially in effect, and you need to notify all of your employees.

TOM BEARDEN: Rudd passed the word.

CONNIE RUDD: So I’m cancelled on the trip to Washington tomorrow. Thank you very much.

EMPLOYEE: You’re welcome.

CONNIE RUDD: And now as soon as you finish your list of phone numbers and can secure your place, you’re welcome to go home.

TOM BEARDEN: A similar scene was being played out north of Denver in Rocky Mountain National Park.

RANDY JONES, Park Superintendent: The staff is a little anxious, not knowing what’s going to happen.

TOM BEARDEN: Randy Jones is the park superintendent.

RANDY JONES: As federal employees, we are also concerned about having to pay our mortgage bills and also it impacts the local economy of the cities and the communities where we live too, so there’s a lot of concern, and we’re just waiting to see what happens in Washington.

TOM BEARDEN: What are you going to do?

RANDY JONES: Wednesday I’m playing golf.

TOM BEARDEN: But it was almost business as usual at other agencies. At the Denver Mint only 54 of the 389 employees were furloughed. Coin production continued. The full staff of air traffic controllers at Denver International Airport will be on duty without interruption. The Veterans Administration employs some 3,000 people in Denver. They will continue to operate the VA hospital. And the post office, which is a quasi-governmental corporation which does not rely on congressional appropriations, will continue to process and deliver the mail. They’re also still printing checks at the Department of Defense Accounting Center in Denver. Military personnel will continue on duty and will get their November 15th paycheck, although no one knows where the money for the November 30th paychecks will come from if the shutdown continues. Survivor benefit checks will continue unimpaired, as will Social Security and welfare payments. But there won’t be anybody on duty to take new applications for Social Security or any other benefits. John Nabil is the chairman of the Denver Federal Executive Board. He says those applications will pile up quickly.

JOHN NABIL, Chairman, Denver Federal Executive Board: It will just back-log, so when the employees come back to work, then they’re going to have to make up for the time that they were off in order to file those applications. Most federal agencies are strapped because of the downsizing we’ve had over the last couple of years, so their workload is pretty heavy as it is.

TOM BEARDEN: Any idea how long it would take to recover from the back-log?

JOHN NABIL: It depends on how long we’re gone.

TOM BEARDEN: Across town, at the Park Service Office, Connie Rudd turned off the lights at 10 o’clock and went home. Like 11,000 other federal employees here, she has no idea when she might return.

JEFFREY KAYE: (Los Angeles) In California, about 50 percent of the state’s estimated 312,000 workers were sent home today, according to the union. At the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, the U.S. State Department normally takes passport applications, but not today. A guard broke the bad news.

GUARD: They’re closed, sir.

JEFFREY KAYE: The passport office posted notices directing would-be travelers to call Washington in an emergency. That’s what Carol Wiltgen and her family tried to do. They needed passports to fly to Switzerland to attend her aunt’s funeral. But when she tried to reach officials by phone, there was no answer.

CAROL WILTGEN: I’m upset. I’m outraged! I mean, I pay my taxes as well. I never had to go out of the country before, and now I have to go, and I can’t even get an emergency passport.

JEFFREY KAYE: Others were angry and frustrated that the government shutdown had interfered with their lives.

MAN: (woman crying in background) See, the dad died over the weekend, and now she can’t even go home.

BARBARA JEAN DE SALLES: Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, why don’t you forego your travel plans and your lecture tour that my husband has to give in Brazil, forego your Christmas and forego all of your work plans for the next month, because that’s what my family has to go through.

JEFFREY KAYE: This building also houses the Los Angeles headquarters of the FBI. This morning, FBI agents were called in to a closed-door meeting to hear who would be sent home. The head of the office, Charlie Parsons, said contrary to news reports, the FBI was affected by the shutdown.

CHARLIE PARSONS, Federal Bureau of Investigation: We’re going to maintain those employees critical to do the job so that we’ll still be chasing spies and arresting people, going after kidnapped children, or whatever the case may be. But we are not totally exempt from this, and we have made some determinations as to how many employees and depending upon their assignments are absolutely critical to our mission, so we will be furloughing some people unfortunately.

JEFFREY KAYE: Outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, it looked like business as usual, but many of the people coming out of the doors were workers who had been excused indefinitely. For one Internal Revenue Service employee, Dorothy Williams, it was the second furlough in 10 years.

DOROTHY WILLIAMS, Internal Revenue Service: The last time, they did the same thing about 1985, and what happens, they pay you, I mean, but we’re off. I mean, to me, it’s a waste of time and money. I think it is. You know, they’re going to pay us anyway, at least I think they are. I hope so.

JEFFREY KAYE: The effect of the furlough is less evident in Los Angeles than in Washington, but as the federal shutdown continues, the impact on the general public is likely to widen.