Mulvaney: No — we had done a lot of research.
Ward: What sort of process had you gone through in advance to make sure that your ducks were all in a row come the December 21 deadline?
Michael Williams: Keep in mind that this was the second shutdown we went through. We’d gone through an initial one in early January of that year — which was the crazier one from a process point of view. During that one, we had just been scrambling, because the previous one had been several years earlier in a completely different administration with completely different goals for a shutdown, whereas we were trying to figure out how much we could keep open and how we could keep the public [operations] as normal as possible throughout the ordeal.
Ward: How much discretion does OMB have when it comes to keeping things open versus shutting things down? And what are the politics around that?
Mulvaney: That’s the real story here. The discretion is considerable. The statutes said that we have discretion as to “the protection of property.” But what is that? You can “except” people from a shutdown [the technical term for allowing them to work] based on “health and safety.” But there’s a lot of latitude there.
The thing I remember is that we were really focused on the national monuments. I remembered from the 2013 shutdown that Obama’s team had not only shut down the monuments but put up a fence around the monuments with signs on it saying “Closed because of the government shutdown.” If you want to have a fun time, go Google that sign. It looks like a Trump tweet — every third word is capitalized for no reason. It’s hysterical.
Emma Doyle: They exempted employees to do that. They brought seven people to erect a [fence] around the World War Two Memorial to make the point that the shutdown was impacting people who were visiting D.C., who otherwise wouldn’t have been impacted. It’s a very political decision, and there’s a lot of discretion. There’s really no health and safety reason to say people can’t continue to explore an open-air, unfenced memorial that doesn’t normally have guides.
Ward: In 2018, was the imperative to keep as many things open as possible? And who was that imperative coming down from?
Ward: What were the calculations behind that?
Mulvaney: They’re not calculations. It’s just the politics. When I was in Congress, I didn’t know that the Office of Management Budget had discretion regarding what stayed open and what was excepted. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “lapse in appropriations,” which is what it is. So we had learned a lot about a shutdown, and the more we learned, the more we learned how the Obama administration had really turned the screws in order to raise the political cost — to make things look as bad as they can. Not to say that’s illegal, but we figured out, Okay, if Obama could turn the dial one way, we could turn the dial the other way. We wanted to try and minimize the impact so that we could focus attention on the issue at hand, which was border security.
Doyle: I worked for Mick in 2013 in the House when we had that 16-day shutdown, and I think for a lot of us who were there for that, without knowing exactly how much discretion OMB had, it felt like there was discretion — but it was hard to figure out where it was coming from. I don’t think any of us thought “Oh, if we’re ever in that position, we’ll look for it.” But when we did get into that position, we thought “Now’s a good time to go and figure out what exactly has to close and what can stay open.”
Williams: In my experience, career employees at OMB more or less want to keep the political folks on a narrow path, but you can shift that dial to the left or to the right a little bit. Obviously, Obama shifted it pretty far over to the left, and we wanted to shift it a little bit over to the right. So it is lot of discretion in moving that dial one way or the other — not complete discretion, but still a ton, because the exceptions are so vague and subject to interpretation.
Ward: So Mick, after the OMB director signs that sheet of paper officially shutting the government, what role does OMB play in managing a shutdown?
Mulvaney: Well, you’d already be prepared for it, right? It’s not like a shutdown is a surprise — with the exception of that outlier [in 2013]. We send out notices in advance — by the way, I understand that those notices have already gone out from the OMB office now — and then the lapse hits, and you’ve already done the foundational work. You’ve laid the foundation with the various agencies, and they’ve started the process of identifying who’s going to be exempted and who gets furloughed. And then you implement that plan as soon as the date passes — so in this case, probably one minute after midnight on December 22.
Doyle: I think that’s something people don’t understand. It’s not like dropping a gate and sealing something off. It’s more like applying pressure to the brakes of a car and slowing it down. It’s really two weeks’ worth of work ahead of time, when you expect to maybe see a lapse in appropriations. It’s actually just as much work within OMB whether or not you get an 11th-hour deal done, because you can’t put aside that work and hope that Congress gets over the line. There’s a team within OMB called the BRD — the Budget Review Division — and they’re the ones that oversee that process. So those folks have been working flat out for the last couple of weeks, getting those plans in place, talking to agencies, and answering questions like “What if I have staff overseas?” “Do I bring people back?” “Do we buy their return ticket now?”
Williams: The people on the BRD team almost have their own language that they’re speaking to their counterparts at the agencies. They’ll start a government-wide call about a week or so out from the deadline where the BRD folks will tell their counterparts either, “We anticipate a shutdown,” or “We don’t anticipate a shutdown,” depending on what they think. But in any case, they say, “Prudent planning requires us to be blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and then they go into the spiel. It’s sort of a tell-it-straight sort of call to the agencies — like “Hey, this thing is probably going to happen,” or not.
Ward: What’s the mood like in OMB during that two-week window you’re describing?
Doyle: We bought a lot of pizza. A lot of pizza.
But it’s challenging, because on the one hand you’re managing it for the government, but on the other hand, you’re all about to go through it on a personal level as well. You’re all federal employees. Psychologically, I think, it’s gotten better since 2013. In 2013, there was a real sense that we might not all get paid back. That shifted [in 2019, when Congress passed a law guaranteeing back-pay to all federal employees]. I think that helps a little bit, but it’s still a loss. It’s still an indefinite loss of getting your paycheck.