Some Agencies Planned To Work Through a Shutdown; Others Took a Different Approach

Architect of the U.S. Capitol

A little after 5 p.m. on Friday evening, the State Department emailed its entire workforce to update them of their shutdown contingency plan, including who would be sent home without pay if the Congress failed to pass a spending measure by midnight.

Just hours before, White House Deputy Press Secretary said the Office and Management and Budget was prepared to instruct agencies to “operate in a normal manner” if the shutdown was going to be short in duration; the appropriations lapse would almost certainly have lasted a maximum of 30 hours, had it taken place. 

Federal agencies across government took different approaches when preparing for the near-shutdown. Around the same time State’s email was hitting employee inboxes, the Smithsonian Institution’s Director of the Office of Planning for Management and Budget David Voyles sent an agencywide message saying it would remain open on Saturday, Dec. 10, and Sunday, Dec. 11, and all employees “who are scheduled to work this weekend are expected to report as usual.” Smithsonian had received authority to do so from OMB, Voyles said.

On Friday, OMB and the White House said that “prudent management” required them to work with agencies to “take appropriate action to prepare for a potential shutdown.” Schultz added agencies had “too much practice releasing guidance about government shutdowns,” and the White House was working across government to plan for “a number of contingencies.”

Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said the agency was in contact with OMB, and it had previously stayed open for the first weekend of a shutdown. Had the funding lapse continued through Monday, St. Thomas said, agency employees would have reported in the morning and begun its “orderly shutdown” procedures.  

State was one of just two departments, and 13 agencies overall, to publicly release updated shutdown guidance Friday. After the 2013 shutdown, OMB told agencies they had to submit contingency plans for an appropriations lapse every other year, with the first one due Aug. 1, 2015. A State official said the department was required to “be prepared for all contingencies, including the possibility that a lapse would occur.” OMB instructed all agencies to release their plans publicly, the official said.

It is unclear under what authority the White House planned to tell agencies to continue operating without appropriations -- which is generally viewed as a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act unless work is being performed to protect life or property, or the employees’ salaries are paid using non-appropriated funds -- and an OMB spokesperson declined to comment. Each agency is “responsible for making specific determinations on which activities may continue during a shutdown and which may not,” according to the Congressional Research Service, in conjunction with OMB.  The Government Accountability Office has previously investigated employees for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act for working while they were supposed to be in furlough status.

Of course, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to fund agencies through April 28, so no shutdown plans had to be put into action.  

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