Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reflections of a non-essential employee

I was working in the White House Correspondence Office during the budget shutdown of 1995. Here's what I remember:

  • The executive branch had a pretty strict definition of the term "non-essential personnel." As I recall, pretty much everyone below the level of deputy assistant to the president was sent home. We weren't allowed to work, even for free. (Something about the 13th amendment.) They wouldn't let us in the doors. Interns, however, could still show up, and were given unprecedented access to senior staff. Among these interns was one Miss Lewinsky....
  • The Congress got to make its own determination about which employees were essential. I had several friends who were legislative aides on Capitol Hill, and they continued to work throughout the shutdown.
  • I got to spend roughly a month at home, mostly reading, following the news (it was an eventful time, with the shutdown and Rabin's assassination), and catching up on my coursework for the night classes I was taking at GW. I wore sweatshirts every day and shaved infrequently. We were not getting paid at this time, although we were hopeful that we would eventually get back pay. (We did, but the uncertainty put a damper on my holiday spending.)
  • Society managed to function -- we still had a postal service, a military, police, hospitals, Social Security, etc. We could not use national park facilities. We could not go to museums. We could not tour federal buildings or memorials. It was not a very fun time in the District of Columbia, but it wasn't exactly 1991 Sarajevo, either.
I'm sort of curious how things would be different today. With the rise of e-government, a lot more governing functions (research, tax filing, benefit applications, etc.) can be done without employees, at least in the short term. I'm assuming those servers would continue to function. Also, John Boehner strikes me as a lot less prone to temper tantrums and bad sweaters than Newt Gingrich was, so maybe the Republicans would have a somewhat easier time controlling the news cycle than they did in 1995. Still, I think the public would end up siding with the president on this one.


marc said...

Thing I recall from the last shutdown was the influence of the 100-year blizzard that happened about the same time. Snow shut down DC for a few critical days that ended up compounding the political events (and the blizzard influenced the Lewinsky events too, if I recall). Second thing I recall is there was a once-in-a-lifetime Vermeer show at the national gallery, that had gotten a lot of praise beyond the usual art-world chatter, and had lines around the block for weeks. That got canceled early when the Smithsonian had to shut down. Though it was the least bread-and-butter impact, I recall it meaning a lot symbolically. Classes DC schoolkids were getting to see the paintings, Gingrich denying them that, etc.

Steve Greene said...

I was going to comment about Vermeer, but Marc sort of beat me to it, though he got it a little wrong. I saw the exhibit during the shut-down. Some private patrons or something managed to donate the cost of keeping only that exhibit open in the museum. It was literally the most crowded I've ever been anywhere that was not a sporting event. Nice paintings, though. My wife was actually quite into Dutch art back then.

Marc said...

Seriously???? Okay, now I'm annoyed with my former self for not knowing that. Because I was totally bummed about missing it.