The Confusion of Short Government Shutdowns
Friday's eight-hour shutdown was not the non-event it seemed from the outside.
Because last Friday’s government shutdown happened while most were asleep and seemed to be resolved by 6 am, the public likely saw it as a non-event. It wasn’t.
Government Executive (“Short-Lived Shutdown Sparks Confusion Across Federal Agencies“):
The short-lived shutdown caused mass confusion across federal agencies Friday morning, as employees awaited the official green light from the White House to resume their work.
Government funding lapsed for about five hours Thursday evening and into Friday morning, but agencies did not receive word to reopen for several more hours as they awaited President Trump’s signature on the bill and for the subsequent all-clear memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget. Just before Congress allowed the deadline to pass, an OMB official said the administration was preparing for a “short-technical lapse.” As of 8 a.m. Friday when many federal workers on the East Coast were reporting to their offices, the Office of Personnel Management still had an alert on its website that “due to a lapse in appropriations, federal government operations vary by agency.”
One Education Department employee said as of 8:15 Friday morning, her office was still initiating shutdown procedures. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney issued guidance late Thursday advising agencies to “undertake orderly shutdown activities” despite the administration’s belief that the lapse would “be of short duration.”
It had “been a highly confusing morning,” the Education staffer said.
Several agencies took to social media Friday morning—after Congress had already approved a stopgap funding bill keeping government open through March 23—to notify non-excepted employees to report to work to “initiate furlough status.”
Trump eventually signed the spending deal, which included a two-year agreement to raise budget caps, and Mulvaney issued the official reopening government memo around 9 a.m. One Homeland Security Department employee told Government Executive that the confusion had not dissipated.
OPM sent a tweet at 9:43 a.m. notifying employees that the government was reopened. The agency said federal offices were “strongly encouraged to use all available workplace flexibilities to ensure a smooth transition back to work for employees (e.g. telework, work schedule flexibilities, and excused absence for hardship situations).”
I was among those confused but our work situation is fluid enough that the application of common sense prevailed, which the vagaries of the standard Civil Service system precludes. Because I was up before 5 Friday morning, I was both aware that the government was shutting down—and started scrambling to do some work that would benefit my students and uniformed teaching partner and yet be illegal once official notified of the shutdown—and then awake for news alerts that Congress had signed the bill. As soon as I saw enough of those to be sure the reports were right, I sent a group text to my students to let them know that we’d be having class at 9.
As a technical matter, federal agencies, including mine, were required to begin shutdown procedures at the start of the business day. It just so happens that, while many employees start earlier, our classes typically don’t start until 9. That meant our civilian workforce—but not our interagency civilian students—were technically supposed to come in to sign furlough paperwork at 9. By that point, President Trump had signed the budget deal but OPM hadn’t yet issued the memo–or, at least, we hadn’t gotten it.
In previous shutdowns, our civilian operations manager would have sent out an email to students and faculty informing us officially of the shutdown and posted something on our learning management system homepage well before 6 am. Because we were in limbo, he shrewedly did nothing. Ditto our next higher headquarters. Had they officially informed us of the furlough, our civilian students would have had to report to their home agencies rather than to school. But, legally, they couldn’t tell everyone to just come in as normal simply because we expected the President to sign the budget. So, we were left to figure it out for ourselves.
My civilian interagency student was in turmoil. Because her agency had her sign the furlough letter earlier given the logistics of her coming in, she was technically furloughed at midnight and entitled to a paid day off regardless. (The disparate nature of federal schedules and, at least in the National Capitol Region, absurd commuting times, makes that a perfectly understandable practice. It would be unconscionable to make someone come in at 6, dismiss them for the day, have them drive two hours round trip, and then expect them to repeat the process later in the day because the country’s leadership couldn’t get their act together.) I persuaded her to come in, anyway, because there was essentially no way we wouldn’t have class.
Trump frankly added to the confusion by not signing the bill right away. Had he done what a normal president would have done, OPM could have sent a notice ending the furlough out by 630 or so. By 930, a massive number of people were presumably already furloughed.