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Snow Paralyzes Federal Government


The federal government is closed for a second day, and with another major snowstorm bearing down on the Northeast, there's a very real possibility of an extended shutdown.

Yesterday, we heard from John Berry, the man who makes the call on the government shutdowns. He said it's not an easy decision in part because of the price tag.

Mr. JOHN BERRY (Director, U.S. Office of Personnel Management): You know, it's an opportunity cost of - we put a rough ballpark on this of about $100 million.

NORRIS: Berry went on to explain that the government does not shut down completely. Essential employees have to report for duty and some workers can use computers to do their jobs at home. But we wondered about all the work that's not getting done when the federal government goes dark.

For answers, we turn to Joe Davidson. He writes the Federal Diary column for The Washington Post. And he joins us from his home where he happens to be working today.

Hello, Joe.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Columnist, The Washington Post): Yeah, I'm doing a little bit of telecommuting myself today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, can you give us any examples of places where there might be a total work stoppage when the federal government shuts down?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, it's hard to say that there will be a total work stoppage, really, because not all of the government's work is done in Washington. There are regional offices around the country; most of them are likely still working. Having said that, though, obviously much of the stuff that they do at the regional level needs to be approved at the national level. And so if people are not working in Washington, then at least some of that will probably be at least delayed.

It's not like these things will simply drop off of the agenda because they're going to be approved once people come back to work. But there definitely will be some delay.

NORRIS: So projects that might get kicked down the curb are timetables that might be thrown off.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yeah, exactly. And in some cases this could be very important to people down on the ground, as we say, who are waiting to get approvals for certain projects, or in some cases waiting to getting checks from different government agencies. And so, some of this delay can obviously be important to particular individuals and programs.

NORRIS: What about things like Medicare payments or benefits checks, or payments to contractors or universities that run major research projects? Is there any possibility that that might be delayed?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think there's a possibility it might be delayed, but it's not a certainty. Because if that check is going to be cut by a regional law office far away from the snowstorm, then there shouldn't be a problem.

NORRIS: If the federal government is shut down, that means many of the buildings, the departments, the agencies here in Washington are not up and running. What about the business that's normally taken care of on Capitol Hill? What's going on there?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, the situation on Capitol Hill is mixed. I did some checking earlier today and found that there likely will be votes on the Senate floor but not on the House floor. So clearly there is business on Capitol Hill, legislative business that's not being taken care of today.

NORRIS: As we speak, this afternoon it looks like the House just canceled their business for the rest of the week.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, what that means is all of that stuff will have to be pushed back, and those - that can result - without hearings, that means certain legislation will not get passed in the same timely manner it would have otherwise. And it's clearly going to have an impact on citizens eventually.

NORRIS: What if the government winds up being shut for the remainder of the week, five days in a row? What would that mean?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, one thing I think it would do, I think it would really encourage much more teleworking in the government. There is some of it now, but it's a relatively small percentage. I think these kinds of events really point to the need for the government to be more dispersed so that people can do more work from home and other locations and allow the government to continue running.

NORRIS: Joe Davidson, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary column for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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