OMB tells agencies to get shutdown plans ready

The Office of Management and Budget is working with federal agencies to "plan for the possibility" of a government shutdown. With less than one week until the e...

The Office of Management and Budget is working with federal agencies to “plan for the possibility” of a government shutdown, with less than one week until the end of the fiscal year.

“At this time, prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse, and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action,” OMB said in a statement Sept. 22. “This includes agencies reviewing relevant legal requirements and updating their plans for executing an orderly shutdown.  Determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed as agencies undertake this process.”

Finding an alternative, of course, is OMB’s first option. But so far a vote on a “clean” short-term continuing resolution has not been scheduled for next week, sources from the House Budget and Appropriations committees said Monday.

“There is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the administration is willing to accept a clean, short-term continuing resolution to fund government operations and allow Congress more time to negotiate an agreement,” OMB said.

House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) expressed a similar sentiment during a press conference Sept. 22 at the National Institutes of Health.

“I can’t stand here right now and say with confidence that there won’t be a government shutdown,” he said. “In the Senate, I think they’re moving forward with a proposal. They may even be doing it as we’re gathered here. But I know in the next couple days they hope to get something out of the Senate. And then the question will be whether the Speaker [John Boehner (R-Ohio)] allows whatever emerges from the Senate to come up for a vote in the House, so we can avoid another shameful episode.”

NIH Director Francis Collins said his agency has learned from the shutdown two years ago, and he’s optimistic he won’t have to implement those shutdown plans again.

“We would not be good stewards of the public trust or good managers to hide our heads in the sand and pretend this could not happen,” he said. “So in a general way, yes, we’re thinking about what we need to do. We haven’t activated any particular steps because we still hope fervently that we won’t have to.”

At NIH, 80 percent of its employees — including doctors and researchers working at agency laboratories and at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland — went home when the government closed in 2013.

Some patients were turned away and employees spent thousands of hours closing down laboratories and setting aside research, he said.

“It was unquestionably a huge waste of money,” Collins said. “If there was any idea that a shutdown somehow is saving the government money because you don’t have to spend anything when the government is closed, that is completely wrong.”

Agencies had more unanswered questions about what might happen during a shutdown in 2013, since the government hadn’t closed since 1995, explained John Cooney, a partner at Venable and former general counsel to OMB during the 1995 shutdown, during a a Sept. 21 event with the Professional Services Council. Since then, communication between government and industry has changed.

But better communication doesn’t guarantee a better workforce attitude. Agencies should expect employee morale to take a hit during another shutdown, Collins warned.

Collins said NIH lost $1.5 billion in research funding in 2013 and he’s losing some experienced doctors and researchers to work for other institutions abroad.

“People really wonder, is this the kind of organization that I want to work for, or should I think about something else to do with my time? If people have suffered significant damage as a result of this — and many people did — that leaves a mark,” Collins said. “We all hoped at that time that the experience was so universally negative and it seemed so totally pointless, that it would never happen again. And here we are.”


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