The Next Government Shutdown Could Be Worse Than the Last One

(Bloomberg) -- If the tentative deal to keep the U.S. government open falters, another shutdown could be even worse.

Rainy-day funds have been exhausted, work is still backlogged, morale is low and there’s been no time to analyze the lessons of the last shutdown, according to interviews with current and former federal employees.

Congressional negotiators said Monday night that they had reached a tentative agreement to keep the government open past Friday’s appropriation deadline but President Donald Trump said Tuesday he isn’t happy with it and hadn’t decided to accept it. “I can’t say I’m thrilled,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting at the White House.

The most pressing threat to agencies in the event of a second partial government shutdown may be their inability to rely on the same workarounds that sustained them last time.

While some federal agencies were able to tap cash reserves or leftover funds from last year to prolong some activities during the last shutdown, which at 35 days was the longest in history, many of those depleted accounts have not yet been restored.

“Agencies will have exhausted or depleted available carryover funds, so they won’t be able to last for as long,” said Sam Berger, a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress who previously worked for former President Barack Obama.

Instead, agencies would effectively be entering Day 1 of a new shutdown with only the resources they would have had left on Day 36.

Agencies are also trying to winnow a backlog of work that built up during the previous shutdown, much less prepare for a new one. Where government typically enters shutdowns guided by a sense of the resources on hand and necessary work, this time, agencies don’t have the same information.

“Normally you go in knowing your resources on hand, the work that needs to be done, and in this case, they’re still trying to figure those out, after the last shutdown,” Berger said.

There’s another problem facing those agencies: They haven’t had time to analyze what happened during the last shutdown, which ended Jan. 25, and figure out how to apply that analysis to blunt the effects of another halt in funding.

“We have barely finished our ‘lessons learned’ from the last shutdown,” Eric Blake, a scientist and union steward at the National Hurricane Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Monday. “Pretty hard to implement that quickly across the agency.”

Julie Roberts, director of communications for NOAA, didn’t respond to a request for comment about what, if anything, the agency plans to do differently during the next shutdown.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there has likewise been no time to plan for the next shutdown, according to Steve Reaves, president of the American Federal of Government Employees Local 4060, which represents about 5,000 dues-paying FEMA workers.

“They’ve spent the majority of this time that we’ve been back from the furlough recovering from the furlough,” Reaves said in a phone interview Monday. “The first week, we were just getting passwords reset and checking voicemail.”

Meanwhile, more than 300 of his members only got their first post-shutdown paycheck on Saturday, Reaves said. “Morale is probably at an all-time low. It’s terrible.”

The agency didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was criticized during the last shutdown for allowing rental assistance contracts with private landlords to expire, plans to update its shutdown plan, according to Brian Sullivan, a spokesman -- but not until later this week.

Sullivan said nobody from HUD was available to discuss what, if anything, the department plans to do differently this time.

The U.S. International Trade Commission is still working to reschedule all of the cases that were put on hold during the last shutdown, according to its website. Key decisions in Qualcomm Corp.’s patent-royalty battle with Apple Inc. were supposed to be issued in late January and mid-February, but are now scheduled to be released in March and July, respectively. Other disputes that were pushed back included ones over Caterpillar Inc. road-milling machines and Sony Corp. storage devices.

The National Science Foundation “is working to update its contingency plans and implementing many of the lessons learned from the recent lapse in appropriations,” Sarah Bates, an agency spokeswoman, said by email. She didn’t say what those lessons where.

Some of the work done by government contractors is still on hold following the first shutdown, according to David Berteau, head of the Professional Services Council, an association that represents contractors. So while much of that contract work was able to continue last time, at least for a time, federal agencies could find themselves with even less support if the government shuts down a second time.

“They haven’t gotten fully back on track in terms of the work that got interrupted,” Berteau said in a phone interview Tuesday.

At least one federal agency is doing something differently this time: The Federal Communications Commission has rescheduled a meeting.

The commission, which by law must meet once a month, moved its meeting forward a week, to Feb. 14, one day before current funding runs out. Commissioners are to vote on policies initially set for decision at the January meeting, which was abbreviated due to that month’s government shutdown.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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