In the same week that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed to avoid future government shutdowns, the Governmental Accountability Office weighed in on Friday with new documentation on the disruption visited upon three agencies during the October 2013 16-day closure.
Cessation of patient registration for clinical trials, delays in graduation of Merchant Marine Academy students, postponed public transit grants, and shuttered environmental management offices were some of the effects of the expired appropriations at the National Institutes of Health and the Transportation and Energy departments, GAO found.
Carried out at the request of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee’s Government Performance Task Force, GAO focused on units in three departments GAO selected “based on the value of grants and contracts, the percentage of employees expected to be furloughed, and the potential for longer-term effects,” the report said.
Auditors reviewed department contingency plans and economic forecasters' analyses, while interviewing officials from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and associations. Auditors also cross-checked the data used in OMB's year-old publication “Costs of the October 2013 Federal Government Shutdown,” finding them reliable.
Within the Health and Human Services Department, “grants management activities at NIH effectively ceased with employee furloughs, although most current grant recipients were able to draw down funds,” GAO noted. “NIH had to reschedule the review process for over 13,700 grant applications because of the shutdown. After the shutdown, NIH completed the process to meet the next milestone in January 2014.”
At Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration “effectively ceased with grants management officials furloughed and no payments made on existing grants,” GAO said. FTA officials said that no new grant awards were processed because of the shutdown, “but the effect was minimal because the grant processing system is typically unavailable in early October for fiscal year closeout activities.”
At Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, “contract activities generally continued because of the availability of multi-year funding, but more than 1,700 contractor employees who operate and maintain EM facilities were laid off or required to use leave because EM issued stop-work orders. EM officials reported some programs required four months to return to pre-shutdown levels of contract activity,” the report said.
Some of the potential disruption—economic estimates of which GAO also examined—was mitigated by the selected departments' “experience with preparing for prior potential shutdowns, funding flexibilities (such as multi-year funding), and ongoing communications internally” with OMB and OPM, the auditors found.
“OMB staff addressed questions from agencies on how to communicate about the shutdown with their employees, but did not direct agencies to document lessons learned from how they planned, managed, and implemented the shutdown for future reference,” the report said.
GAO’s recommendation for the future is that agencies dealing with a shutdown better document the impact. OMB declined to take a position on the recommendation.