Confusion and questions precede possible government shutdown
As U.S. troops prepared for the possibility of working without pay until politicians finished the long-overdue job of passing a 2011 budget, a frenzy of last-minute planning was underway throughout the Department of Defense on Friday.
Inside the Pentagon and on bases worldwide, there was confusion over what services would continue, which civilian workers would be furloughed and which would continue working if the midnight Friday budget deadline passed without a political solution.
Meanwhile, reports from Capitol Hill suggested divisive issues like abortion and mitigating greenhouse gases were adding complexity to the already fraught issue of how much to slash the nation’s spending.
“This is freaking nuts,” a civilian worker passing through the Pentagon food court said Friday morning to a colleague. “We still don’t know who’s coming to work Monday.”
A senior defense official who was unauthorized to speak publicly said in a briefing Friday afternoon that planning for the shutdown was down to the wire.“We’ve had to pick up the planning aggressively in the last few days and not every decision is made,” the official said.Around half the civilian workforce, or about 400,000 employees, would be sent home after reporting to work Monday if a shutdown order occurs, the official said.
But if a budget is passed by Tuesday, he said, servicemembers and civilians who remained on the job would likely receive a normal paycheck on Friday. If it stretched longer, the Pentagon would likely schedule a special payday as soon as funds became available.
Overseas troops and their families — already aware that pay would be suspended as long as a government shutdown continued — worried about whether they would be able to purchase necessities ranging from diapers to chicken breasts in base commissaries.
A Defense Commissary Agency official in Europe said Thursday commissaries would close, but officials at the Pentagon later contradicted that, saying decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.
Because of natural and man-made disasters in Japan, however, commissaries on Japanese bases would likely be declared necessary for the preservation of life and safety and therefore excepted from closure, the senior official said.
“Harder call for some of the stateside ones,” he said. “These are just judgments we’ll have to make.”
Then, late in the day Friday, the Defense Commissary Agency did a full reverse, announcing that all overseas stores, including those in Puerto Rico and Guam, would remain open during a shutdown. But a decision had not yet been made on U.S. commissaries.
Clear, department-wide answers about what would shut down and who would go on furlough were lacking.
Although key directives on how to manage the shutdown were released Thursday evening by Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn and by the White House Office of Management and Budget, much has been left to local commanders and managers to decide.
Commanders need not clear their decisions with higher-ups, though they will be held responsible for making proper decisions, said Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan.
“The expected thing is that they’ll operate within the guidance,” Lapan said. “But they have the discretion.”
Notifications began Friday, he said.
“They’re now starting to tell employees ‘You’re excepted, you’re not excepted,” he said.
As for facilities like commissaries or gymnasiums, whether they stay open again depends on local factors like how they’re funded and who works there. Activities funded by congressional appropriations would presumably shut, while others like mess halls and child care centers with funding from elsewhere could continue.
Likewise, some civilian contractors working for companies that have already been paid would continue working.
And, Lapan said, uniformed servicemembers who had been working jobs not deemed necessary for national security or the protection of life and safety might temporarily fill in for civilian workers.
“It will be situational,” he said. “It won’t be one thing you can apply across the board.”