How The Government Spent $2 Billion Paying Workers To Not Work

Two billion — that's the number of dollars the federal government lost during the partial government shutdown, paying furloughed employees not to work.

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Now, another Number of the Year. We asked our reporters and producers which numbers tell the most important stories of 2013. Their answers ranged from zero to a trillion. Today, it's two billion. As NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports, this number reveals just some of the costs of the recent government shutdown.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Two billion - $2 billion, that is. That's how much the White House budget office estimates the government paid federal employees to stay home during the shutdown.

BRIAN DEESE: The total direct payroll cost of all of the furloughs that happened during the shutdown period.

KEITH: Brian Deese is deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

DEESE: It was the lost productivity that reflects the mindlessness of forcing them to not work, is the way that I would recast that.

KEITH: The shutdown lasted 16 days in October. And Deese says at the peak, some 850,000 federal workers were furloughed. The bill that ends the shutdown included back pay for those employees but, at the time, they didn't know whether they would be paid or not.

Jared Cobbs is a contract consultant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

JARED COBBS: Just because the government stops, our lives don't stop. You know, kids still have to go to daycare.

KEITH: He was interviewed on the first day of the shutdown.

COBBS: This is something that I wish both parties could agree on, because it's a mess for those people who actually are affected by this due to the fact that this is our income. You know, this is our livelihood.

PROTESTERS: Do your job, serve the people. Do your job, serve the people...

KEITH: Federal employees with clever signs chanted as members of Congress held an outdoor press conference about closed federal monuments. Others sold baked goods on the capitol grounds, all to make a point.

George Schlaffer, a 40-year IRS employee, attended a rally put on by a union for federal workers.

GEORGE SCHLAFFER: For me personally, it's an extreme hardship. I have a daughter at Temple Medical School in her third year. I have another daughter in a nursing program at Towson. I'm helping both my daughters with their tuition. And I still have a mortgage debt.

KEITH: And, of course, the cost of the shutdown doesn't stop with that $2 billion price tag for paying people like Schlaffer. With national parks closed for more than two weeks, the Parks Service missed out on $7 million in revenue, with an additional half-billion in lost visitor spending nationwide.

Norma Herring is the general manager of the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg.

NORMA HERRING: We've had people call and say we hear that the town is shut down. And we're like no, no. There's plenty to do, you just can't go on the battlefield.

KEITH: Two hundred applications for oil drilling permits sat around. The start of the Alaskan crab fishing season was delayed. Seven hundred small business administration loans weren't processed. Antarctic research facilities missed a key data collection period. It goes on and on.

A month later, when the Office of Management and Budget released a report documenting the costs of closing the government, Texas Senator Ted Cruz - who is credited with pushing the shutdown strategy - blamed the president and Senate Democrats. In a statement he said they forced the government shutdown by refusing to defund or delay the health law.

But others see that $2 billion figure as a sign of the ultimate pointlessness of the whole 16-day exercise.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Well, hopefully we've learned a lesson not to do this.

KEITH: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona thought the shutdown was a terrible, no good idea from the start and got increasingly pointed in his criticism as it dragged on. This was him just moments after casting a vote to reopen the government.

MCCAIN: This whole thing is a cautionary tale. Nobody came out of this thing looking good. Everybody was hurt by it. Republicans were hurt more than anybody else. And so, hopefully, we will learn that the American people are sick and tired of this.

KEITH: Which brings us to one more number, nine. According to a Gallup survey, that's the percentage of Americans who actually approve of Congress these days.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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