Looking Back To 1995 For Shutdown Guidance

To learn about the decision making behind what stays open and what closes during a government shutdown, Renee Montagne talks to John Koskinen. He managed the 1995 government shutdown as deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to here now from a man who's probably the country's foremost export on shutdowns, John Koskinen. The last time the government closed for business, Koskinen was the deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget. In late 1995, the government shut down twice in rapid succession and Koskinen managed both shutdowns. He explains the decision-making behind what was closed and what stayed open.

Mr. JOHN KOSKINEN (Former Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget): It's actual a violation of the criminal law to spend money that isn't appropriated. So the presumption was everything would shut down and then the agencies would come forward with their proposals as to which parts of their activities could overcome the presumption and could demonstrate that they were actually providing emergency services, either to protect life or property.

MONTAGNE: What sorts of arguments did agencies make to you? Give us an example of why, let's say, they should not shut down, or should not shut down parts of the agency?

Mr. KOSKINEN: Well, one example was we had a discussion both with the Defense Department and the FBI about whether recruiting activities should continue and whether those were emergency functions. And the Defense Department was prepared to not - to close its recruiting stations. The FBI was concerned that that would interfere with their operations, so they argued that they ought to be open. And after discussing it with everyone, both agencies and at OMB, we decided that it was hard to argue that not having recruits for a few days or even a few weeks was going to be an - create an emergency, so all our recruiting operations shut down.

MONTAGNE: Although that's a very interesting example. Because in 1995, the U.S. was not involved in three conflicts. Would today - you think a different decision would be made about recruiting for the military?

Mr. KOSKINEN: Well, the circumstances certainly are different, both in terms of wars and in terms of the state of the economy. So I think it would be certainly appropriate for people to revisit that issue - although, again, it's not an on-off switch in the sense that once you make a decision at the start of a shutdown, you don't revisit it. But you might decide that it that doesn't create an emergency for three or four days, but if it goes for two or three weeks, the situation would change, and then you might need to, in fact, begin, for instance, recruiting again.

MONTAGNE: Do you think the decision-making is more complicated this time around because there's such a widespread use of the Internet? People have BlackBerries. People take their work away from the office a lot nowadays. Would it be trickier to keep people from doing non-approved work activities?

Mr. KOSKINEN: Well, that's - I've been noting that people are arguing about whether they get to take their BlackBerries home with them. It clearly is illegal - if you're not an accepted or an emergency employee - to be performing work for the government. In fact, one of our problems in '95 was - particularly at Social Security, when it had been closed down, we had to actually lock the doors to keep people from coming to work who felt committed to the mission of the agency.

I think also another impact will be, in this digital information age, people have come to depend upon access to federal information very easily, through websites and other mechanisms. And all of that will be unavailable.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, those two shutdowns back in 1995 - Thanksgiving and Christmas-New Years - was there something that the American people seemed to discover was something they hadn't expected when this government shutdown came along?

Mr. KOSKINEN: Well, I think a lot of people - particularly the new congressmen, then, many of whom had not been directly involved with the government in their careers - in some ways, it was easier to sort of think of the government as involved as AID - foreign AID programs and welfare, and if you shut it down, who would notice? And they discovered that, you know, people cared about parks and museums. They cared about getting FHA loans. And there was a lot of that, I think, in '95, that people didn't really understand or think about - you know, shutting down the passport services and other things they depended upon.

MONTAGNE: And passport services were cut to - were shut down.

Mr. KOSKINEN: Right. It's hard to argue it's an emergency, you know, that you can't get your passport or visa renewed.

MONTAGNE: Was this - finally, what is the most memorable thing for you about those '95 shutdowns?

Mr. KOSKINEN: Well, it's a good question. The irony of the shutdown was the second one - which ran for almost about three weeks - ended on a Saturday. It was starting to snow, as it ended. Those of us - the technical people who had to then deal with the legislation itself Saturday night got stuck in their offices, because that was the start of a major blizzard. And by Monday morning, the government shut down for snow reasons, not for budget reasons. And so the ultimate irony was we had three weeks of government shutdown because we didn't have money, and then we had three or four days of shutdown because nobody could get to work.

MONTAGNE: John Koskinen managed the shutdown of the federal government back in 1995. He was deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget.

Thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. KOSKINEN: It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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