Closed museums to be least of the problems in a U.S. shutdown

Reuters

* Closing U.S. government for long can cause trouble

* Previous experience shows potential for seriousconsequences

By Patrick Temple-West and Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The most iconic image fromthe last big shutdown of the federal government in 1995 was alsoits most misleading.

It was a sign on the door of the Air and Space Museum inWashington saying "Due to the Federal Government shutdown, theSmithsonian Institution must be closed. We regret theinconvenience."

But that shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan.6, 1996 as Democratic President Bill Clinton battled aRepublican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, was a lotmore than an inconvenience.

And it offers lessons about what Americans might expect,both in costs and reduced services, if a stalemate betweenRepublicans in Congress and Democratic President Barack Obamaleads to a shutdown on Tuesday.

The shutdown of 1995-96 held up passports for more than200,000 people who wanted to travel. It stopped stock offeringsfrom coming to market. It blocked new admissions to the NationalInstitutes of Health, the government's illustrious medicalresearch facility.

And yes, national parks across the country and museums inWashington did close.

The paralysis produced millions of dollars in losses fortourist-dependent businesses.

And costs to the federal government alone, according to ananalysis by the Office of Management and Budget, was $1.4billion, most of it in back pay to furloughed workers whocollected later for the inconvenience of staying home.

Elaine Kamarck, who worked in the White House during the1995-96 shutdown and now directs the Brookings Institution'sCenter for Effective Public Management, said she remembers onlyabout 30 essential staffers manning the Executive Office of thePresident instead of the hundreds who normally worked there.

IMPACT WILL BUILD

Kamarck said citizens in the rest of the nation - includingones who rail about Washington - may think their state and localservices are intact until the trickle-down effects of a shutdownbecome obvious.

"It will take a couple days, and things that people do notthink are part of the federal government will start shuttingdown," Kamarck said, because money from Washington is what keepsmany of those services alive.

If the Tuesday shutdown materializes, it will be because ofa similar standoff - a political struggle in a dividedgovernment over fiscal differences.

But the added complication is that Republicans want to delayimplementation of the Affordable Care Act, the president'shealthcare law and his signature legislative accomplishment.

The White House has said that item is non-negotiable, whichmeans that a deal to end a shutdown soon could be difficult toachieve.

Ironically, a shutdown would not halt or even delay thelaunch of federal and state health insurance exchanges set forOct. 1 as part of the law, commonly known as Obamacare.

Its impact would depend entirely on how long a shutdownlasts - hours, weeks or even months.

While most agencies are waiting for certainty beforeunveiling specific shutdown plans, they have issued guidancethat makes the potential clear.

Workers will be on the job if they are responsible forpublic safety, whether it's Coast Guard patrols or meatinspections, or for fighting wars or guarding federal prisons.

Americans who depend on Social Security retirement paymentsor health insurance from the Medicare program will not beaffected.

But more than a million federal employees will be off thejob for as long as the shutdown continues.

Figures provided by agencies underscore the challenges.

Securities and Exchange Commission guidance, for example.says that the number of employees expected to be "on-board"before implementation of the furlough plan is 4,149.

After implementation, the number retained because they areinvolved in agency law enforcement activities or buildingsecurity is 252.

At the Internal Revenue Service, the total number ofemployees prior to shutdown is 94,516. The total number"excepted" from furlough is 8,752, leaving all but 9.3 percentof workers at home.

Marvin Friedlander, a former IRS official who lived throughthe mid-1990s shutdown, said many workers were tempted to sneakhome some business during their furlough, skirting rules thatsaid they were not allowed to work at all without congressionalauthorization.

But now that's harder to get away with.

IRS employees, for example, have special home computersoftware installed to prevent leaks of taxpayer information.

The software tracks when an employee logs into IRS systems,said Friedlander.

Now, he said, the agency tells employees, "If we find outyou worked at home, you're going to get fired."

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