Back Pay for Federal Employees No Guarantee If Government Shuts Down

Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum was among the facilities closed during the government shutdown of 1995-1996. Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum was among the facilities closed during the government shutdown of 1995-1996. Doug Mills/AP file photo

Federal employees face the strong possibility that Congress will refuse to grant them back pay if the government shuts down in less than two weeks.

The most conservative faction of the House Republican Party, which last week forced the GOP leadership to delay a vote on legislation to keep the government open past Sept. 30, is different from the group of lawmakers that approved retroactive pay for federal employees after the government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996, said a former veteran House aide. “We’ve never had a group of people this extreme, who have the kind of power these guys have,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on federal budget policy.

Lilly said that because the mid-1990s shutdown was widely perceived as a “huge mistake on the part of House Republicans,” lawmakers were willing to grant back pay to feds as a mea culpa. But the current crop of members trying to use a continuing resolution to keep the government open as a way to defund Obamacare cannot be counted on for pragmatism.

“It’s very hard to predict” what will happen if the government closes and most of the federal workforce is furloughed, said Lilly, who worked on Capitol Hill for decades in several positions, including as chief of staff to former Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. “If [Speaker John] Boehner and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor can’t predict what they are going to do, I don’t think anyone else can.”

If Congress fails to keep the government open, and subsequently opposes an effort to give furloughed federal workers back pay, then it would be the first time lawmakers refused to reimburse employees for unpaid leave resulting from a lapse in appropriations. Lilly said a short-term government shutdown would be “very problematic” but a long-term closure would be “horrible for our national security and economic stability as a society.”

The House is scheduled this week to vote on some version of a continuing resolution to keep government running, although it’s not clear yet what that will look like, or when it will happen. Politico on Monday reported that the House GOP leadership is contemplating ways to link together before Oct. 1 votes on the debt ceiling, a government funding measure and language delaying implementation of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The last House votes for this week are scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, according to the calendar posted on the majority leader’s website. The chamber is supposed to be on recess all next week until Sept. 30, but Lilly said the leadership doesn’t have much choice but to cancel it, although that’s no guarantee they’ll pass a continuing resolution. “The anger would be even greater” if they shut down the government and they weren’t even in Washington, said the former Capitol Hill aide. “That would exacerbate the public reaction to their inability to get their work done, particularly since they’ve been on vacation most of the year.”

Steve Bell, senior director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Economic Policy Project, agreed that the House cannot go on recess if they haven’t figured out how to fund the government past Sept. 30. Bell, who worked for former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., in the lawmaker’s personal office and as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee in the 1970s and 1980s, said he thinks the Republican and Democratic House leadership ultimately will negotiate to avoid a government shutdown. But, “for the first time this year, I think they are going to cut it pretty close,” Bell said. The last time the government almost shut down -- with about an hour to spare -- was April 2011.

Congress cannot afford to play games with a government shutdown or a potential default, which could hit sometime between Oct. 18 and Nov. 5, Bell said. Waiting until the last minute to resolve these kinds of fiscal issues carries its own risk. “That’s when mistakes happen,” he said.

In the meantime, federal workers are once again in a holding pattern, waiting to see how Capitol Hill’s decisions affect their jobs and pay.

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