Editor's Notebook January 1996
Before he took to public life, John A. Koskinen made a name for himself as a turnaround expert in the private sector. Companies in deep trouble would look to him and his firm, Palmieri Co., for strategies of survival in the most desperate of times. His job was to bring these firms, including such well-known ones as Penn Central, back from the brink, or out of the abyss, of bankruptcy.
Fate appropriately cast Koskinen in a similar role in the public sector this year-as overseer of the federal government's flirtation with financial disaster. As deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, Koskinen was in charge of coordinating the longest shutdown of the government in modern U.S. history.
During a recent conversation in his second-floor corner office in the Old Executive Office Building, Koskinen said "I am certainly not going to put the fact that I coordinated the shutdown high on my resume, because it was an unfortunate thing for everybody." Among those aggrieved were federal employees who suffered from the unfortunate distinction drawn chiefly by people in Congress and the media between "essential" and "nonessential" jobs. Koskinen fought against these labels, attempting to explain that the law provides that in the absence of funding, everyone must be furloughed with the "exception of [people who need to take] emergency actions necessary to protect against imminent threats to life and property." So the right terms were "excepted" and "nonexcepted." Koskinen believes downsizing has already succeeded in eliminating virtually all nonessential jobs.
Yet there were interesting issues of timing in decisions on what constituted an "emergency." The Social Security Administration could shut down for a couple of days without harm, Koskinen said, but beyond that, a burgeoning backlog of cases would create a "risk of denying people benefits they are of course entitled to." The Department of Veterans Affairs had similar problems. So President Clinton announced that tens of thousands of SSA and VA employees would be called back to "emergency" duty if Congress failed to end the shutdown.
Even before that Presidential call, some 800,000 civilian federal employees had been declared excepted. About two-thirds of these were Defense Department personnel. With the President's determination that depriving people of entitlement benefits constituted an emergency, the number of excepted employees would have approached the 900,000 mark, or nearly 50 percent of the government's workforce.
Such a large number stretches the credibility of the "emergency" designation, as the American Federation of Government Employees argued in a lawsuit demanding a narrower definition. If the government is prepared to declare that half its civilian (and all of its uniformed military) employees are doing emergency work, and if Congress insists on granting furloughed workers full pay for work not performed, then the government shutdown has outlived its effectiveness as a tool for forcing compromise among political leaders. November's shutdown inflicted little damage-except on the already depreciated value of federal jobs in the eyes of the American public.
--Timothy B. Clark
Editor and Publisher, Government Executive