Panda Cam Working Again as U.S. Government Restarts

The e-mails went out to federal employees shortly after President Barack Obama signed the bill funding the government: Report to work.

The 11th-hour budget deal Congress struck yesterday raised the nation’s debt limit and ended the 16-day government shutdown that had sent hundreds of thousands of federal employees home without pay. Now they’re flooding back to work.

“Most employees are back or they’re on their way back,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said at a press conference today in Washington. Agencies called many workers back immediately, giving them a “reasonable amount of time” to report -- typically within four hours of receiving notice that the government is once again open for business, she said.

From the halls of America’s bureaucracies to its national parks, federal workers are discovering that returning to their jobs after being furloughed for more than two weeks isn’t as easy as simply showing up and turning on the lights.

For some departments, starting up will be even harder than shutting down, and it may be weeks or even months before the government resumes issuing loans, payments and contracts at a normal pace.


“This has been very disruptive,” Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, a contract consulting firm in McLean, Virginia, said in an interview. “The shock wave will last for months.”

Kelley -- whose union represents 150,000 federal employees at 31 agencies including the Treasury and Commerce Departments - - said one of the biggest impacts of the shutdown stems from the temporary halt in the IRS’s tax collection efforts.

President Bill Clinton’s administration estimated that the country lost about $100 million for each day the IRS’s collection activities weren’t operating during a previous government shutdown. While no current assessment is available, it’s clear from the past experience that the temporary loss to the Treasury is extensive, Kelley said.

By foot, car, subway, and bus, the workers came back to offices in the capital they closed two and a half weeks ago to start the process of re-opening the government. Vice President Joe Biden greeted federal workers returning to the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters on 12th Street in downtown Washington.

The National Zoo’s popular “panda cam” was turned back on this morning, providing streaming video of a baby panda in Washington. The web page provides live views of the 8-week-old cub and her mother.

Debt Deal

Last night’s legislation funds the government through mid-January and raises the nation’s $16.7 billion debt limit, ending for now the threat of default, which economists had warned could push the U.S. back into a recession.

Federal agencies were instructed to begin opening offices today in a “prompt and orderly manner,” according to a memo from OMB Director Sylvia Burwell that cleared furloughed employees to return to work. “We will work closely with departments and agencies to make the transition back to full operating status as smooth as possible,” she said.

The budget agreement reopens closed parks and barricaded monuments that had forced tourists to cancel trips and hurt nearby businesses that rely on the traffic.

Workers who had to scrimp to cover the loss of pay received good news: Their next checks on Oct. 25 will cover the full 80-hours. Agencies said retroactive pay covering the first shutdown week would be made as soon as possible.

‘Cranking Machine’

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which furloughed all but 300 of its 3,900 person staff, will have to reschedule public meetings, including those with companies including Southern Co., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, which were canceled during the shutdown.

“We are literally just cranking the machine back up,” Scott Burnell, an agency spokesman said in a phone interview. While the NRC didn’t lay off its resident inspectors at U.S. reactors during the shutdown, it did stop updating its daily report of incidents at the units. Those will be posted retroactively, Burnell said.

As of this morning, the NRC was making adjustments to accommodate its workers who may have gotten late the order to return to work.

“Supervisors are strongly encouraged to grant leave, telework, or work schedule flexibilities to help ensure a smooth transition back to work for employees,” said a notice on the agency’s website.

‘Different Now’

The partial halt in government operations was shorter than the budget shutdowns in fiscal 1996 that lasted a total of 26 days.

This year’s disruption has been far broader in scope, said Barry Anderson, who was assistant director of the White House Office of Management and Budget during the fiscal 1996 shutdown.

Congress had completed seven of its 13 annual appropriations bills funding agencies in the previous stoppage - - leaving vast parts of the government still working. This time not a single agency funded at Congress’s discretion had final budget approval.

“Things are very different now,” Anderson said.

The 16-day halt in operations at many federal agencies took an estimated $24 billion out of the U.S. economy, Standard & Poor’s said yesterday.

The cost of restarting the government is hard to tabulate. A study conducted by the OMB after the fiscal 1996 shutdown pegged the closing’s cost at $1.4 billion, or about $2 billion in today’s money. That figure didn’t include costs incurred when workers returned, though those expenses were termed “significant” by John Koskinen, deputy director of management at OMB during the previous shutdown, during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Civil Service in December 1996.

Uncounted Costs

“Significant additional costs, that cannot be determined at this time, include interest payments to third parties” when the government doesn’t pay its bills on time, he said. “There will also be additional personnel costs necessary to deal with the backlog of work resulting from the shutdown.”

Those expenditures may be billions of dollars, said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied shutdowns.

While he is aware of no study that has calculated the cost of restarting the government, Tiefer said the biggest line items likely include the inability of agencies to carefully audit the huge backlog of payments including those to the IRS and Medicare claims. Others come from the difficulty of health and safety regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency to pick up unresolved investigations, he said.

“When they resume their work, the trail will be cold, and the work lost,” Tiefer said in an interview. “That is by far the most costly.”

Morale Damaged

It may also hurt morale. In her message, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sought to reassure even those employees who were furloughed that they serve important roles.

“For those of you returning to work today, we missed you and welcome back,” Sebelius wrote. “Thank you for understanding that your status was based on a technical statutory definition mostly determined by how your work is funded, and not the value we attribute to the important work you do each and every day here at the Department.”

“To those returning from furlough: know that the work you perform is incredibly valued by your military teammates and by me,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a message to employees.

The Pentagon had already recalled to work most of the 350,000 civilian employees it originally sent home. Even so, Hagel called the shutdown a “manufactured crisis” that was an “unwelcome and unnecessary distraction.”

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