Fmr OPM Dir. King: Shutdown is guerrilla theater

Monday - 2/28/2011, 10:08am EST

Jim King, former director, Office of Personnel Management

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

"It was very similar as far as the guerrilla theater that goes on with the members of the House and the Senate."

That's how Jim King, a former director of the Office of Personnel Management, remembers the last government shutdown in 1995.

King told Federal News Radio it was on his watch that the label "non-essential" federal worker was created. "That created a great deal of really ugly PR. One of the first things we had done was to establish the fact that we have emergency employees and then everyone else is essential."

"The biggest single thing, though was, I think, members of Congress who thought... and public, who said 'Oh the government doesn't do anything. It doesn't really affect me. I live in an isolated area. (Then) the parks closed, and suddenly the coffeeshop buzz was, 'My son's sport shop...My son says they haven't sold five dollars worth of material in the past two days.'"

By the end of the shutdowns, said King, it was clear "the impact on the American people was there."

At the time, there were about two million civilian federal employees, which said King, "is about the same size as the government was in 1953 when we had about half of the population we presently have today. So the technical side, and the efficiency of the federal government is really quite dramatic, but it's not fully understood by those who don't analyze the real figures."

That lack of understanding about what federal employees do, and how much they're paid to do it has led to the pay debate we've all heard so much about.

King doesn't solely blame the public or media for that lack of understanding by a public who lumps federal, state and local governments together, and then even what makes up the federal government. "We've done a rather poor job in explaining to people," said King. "For example, sixty percent of the (federal) workforce belongs in three agencies: Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs."

As for federal benefits, King said another point of confusion has to do with pensions. "Our pensions are funded," said King, "but when you're listening to the... watching television or listening to the radio, you'll get Wisconsin and a number of other states who are facing a crisis in pensions. We get, in the federal government, get piggy-backed onto all the bad news and all the things that have been done elsewhere, but have been remedied at the federal level."

As for lessons learned from the earlier shutdowns, King offered some very common sense advice to federal employees and contractors: "don't make any huge financial commitments because you're going to have disrupted pay and I don't know about the rest of you, but I spend....if it comes in, it goes out."

Tighten up on the purchasing, said King, "and I would make sure that I could survive financially and not destroy my own credit rating because someone else needs to do the political guerrilla theater."