Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Living in DC as a sort-of furloughed worker during the longest government shutdown in US history

By Jillian Mayer

Note: This blog post was written February 14, 2019, on the eve of the end of the 2019 partial government shutdown.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Photo: Jillian Mayer

The first thing you need to know when beginning a job in federal government is that everything revolves around appropriations. The second thing you need to know is that “budgets” and “appropriations” are different. You can thank me later.

Budgets are issued by the President, federal agencies, and Congress, and have no binding power; budgets merely request how much money parties would like to see spent on various programs within the US government. Appropriations decisions, on the other hand, have teeth: appropriations bills allow various programs to receive designated amounts of funding. Budgets and appropriations don’t necessarily have any relationship to each other. There’s no law that dictates that the appropriations bills passed by Congress and signed into law by Presidents need to reflect the President’s or Congress’s budgets. Budgets are, in legal terms, bullsh*t. Appropriations are what matters, because money flows through appropriations and appropriations only.

Normally, the federal budget and appropriation processes happen in a certain order each year and in time to continue funding our federal government without lapse. Fiscal years (FY) run from October 1 – September 30. The President releases his budget request in February or March the year preceding the fiscal year to which it refers. President Trump released his FY 2019 budget request on Monday, February 12, 2018. Shortly thereafter, individual federal agencies released their budget requests that corresponded to the President’s budget request, but in more detail. Congress responded by passing their own budget resolutions. Although President Trump’s FY 2019 looked scary with severe cuts to social welfare programs, environmental regulatory agencies, and other important government services, it had little bearing on what Congress suggested in their budget resolutions, nor did it dictate appropriations.

Once budgets are established, the process moves to drafting, amending, and passing appropriations bills. In 2018, Congress began appropriations work in April and had over 5 months to pass appropriations for FY 2019. Congress is tasked with passing 12 appropriations bills each year, categorized by general subject matter. For example, the “defense” appropriations bill decides yearly funding levels for all matters within the Department of Defense. The “transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies” appropriations bill funds the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Within each legislative chamber (the House and Senate), an appropriation bill originates in its corresponding subcommittee within the Appropriations Committee, passes the full Appropriations Committee, and passes the whole chamber. The two chambers’ appropriations bills on the same subject may be millions or billions of dollars apart. Congress must wrestle back and forth before ultimately passing the exact same language (bill) through each chamber. Only then is an appropriations bill delivered to the President’s desk to be signed into law. Often, many appropriations bills are combined into one or more omnibus packages that contain several of the 12 bills, to avoid going through this process 12 distinct times before time runs out on September 30th.

Many steps must be completed to avoid a government shutdown. Image: NationalJournal Presentation Center

By the end of 2018, after FY 2019 had started, neither Democrats nor Republicans nor the House nor Senate could agree on 7 of the 12 appropriations bills. 5 had been passed via omnibus before the October deadline, and the remaining 7 continued to be temporarily funded through continuing resolutions. However, the continuing resolutions ran out at midnight on December 21. President Trump insisted that he would not sign any further appropriations without ~$5.7 billion in border-wall funding. The House agreed, the Senate did not. The longest (partial) government shutdown in US history began in the early minutes of December 22, 2018.

With a few exceptions for “essential” federal workers and pre-funded continuing programs, most federal employees working in the fields of agriculture, commerce, justice, science, interior, environment, homeland security, financial services, government services, foreign operations, transportation, housing, and urban development were furloughed. Approximately 800,000 people were not paid for 35 days, and the ripple effects of their leave were massive. The shutdown disrupted ongoing scientific studies, disaster relief, regulation and rule-making, litigation, transportation, public housing, and almost everything else funded in whole or part with discretionary federal dollars (i.e. not mandatory social security, Medicare, and Medicare spending). The cruelty of holding 800,000 Americans’ pay and the human right to immigration for thousands of DACA recipients and refugees as bargaining chips is almost unfathomable, but is upon further reflection par for the course in a country built on slavery, genocide, the exploitation of workers, and other systemic ills. But that’s another essay.

I moved to DC on January 6, two weeks into the five-week shutdown. I had already signed up and started paying for healthcare, rent in my first solo studio apartment, internet, a gym, and student loans. I had budgeted carefully for this year in DC, and was excited for my first “grown up” job with a steady and ample paycheck and regular hours. Our Knauss coordinators at NOAA were already furloughed, and could not readily communicate with us about the fate of our fellowship year. I reached out to contemporary fellows for information. They reported that many Executive fellows were locked out of their offices in federal buildings and their colleagues would have to mail them personal items, like jackets and shoes, left in their offices after the shutdown ended and the Fellowship concluded. The 2019 fellows (my year) were left wondering if they would have jobs come February 1st, our proposed start date. Some fellows postponed moving to DC and stayed in their home states, but the majority of us had already found housing and were moving. 

Moving to DC opens up exciting new travel opportunities. Photo: Jillian Mayer

With nothing to do and no end to the shutdown in sight, I filled my time with getting to know DC. It. Was. Awesome. I volunteered with two food banks: Capital Area Food Bank and DC Central Kitchen. Both are fabulous organizations that I recommend future Knauss fellows check out. Some of the people receiving assistance and almost all of the volunteers were furloughed government employees. We chatted about stalled Department of Justice cases, the inability of US Fish and Wildlife to communicate with state natural resource departments, and the difficulty of affording daycare without a paycheck. There, I got to ask a lot of my “how does government work?!” questions in a judgment-free environment because my fellow volunteers knew the system but weren’t my supervisors. 

I also started volunteering with City Dogs Rescue, another great organization to visit in DC, and fell in love with a pit-bull mix named Barney after taking him home for a weekend “vacation” from the shelter. Hundreds of restaurants, gyms, and clothing stores throughout DC were offering free or low-cost products and services to furloughed workers. My DC utilities company offered to postpone my bills until three months after the shutdown ended. Even my Michigan-based credit union was giving interest-free loans to people affected by the shutdown. I was very lucky, and my myriad privileges (white collar job, able body, health insurance, US passport, lack of dependents, savings account, etc) helped make my temporary furlough fun instead of devastating. Still, I was heartened by the compassionate responses that individuals and private companies extended to government employees. I wish the same generosity were always extended to all people living through crises, but alas. 

Knauss fellows get to be DC tourists, too. Photo: Jillian Mayer 

On January 25, 2019, Trump and Congress agreed to a temporary short-term spending bill that would reopen the government through February 15, 2019, giving Congress time to agree on a new appropriations omnibus bill to end the shutdown. As I write this, it is 8pm on February 14, and the White House has reported that the President will sign the final appropriations without sufficient border-wall funding and declare a national emergency at the border tonight. I’ll find out what happened on my news app in bed, when I wake up tomorrow morning. Most current Knauss fellows were able to start work in early February, though some fellows are still not even in DC and others have had their onboarding delayed still. I have been in my Senator’s office since February 6th, and am already working (more like stumbling, crawling, tripping, gagging, shrugging, huffing, and puffing) on six bills, including one to address harassment in STEM, another to update failing coastal infrastructure, and the Green New Deal. I greatly look forward to the rest of my year on the Hill, despite (or because?) of its interesting start.

After a tenuous beginning, the year is off to a great start. Photo: Jillian Mayer