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Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite


Politics | Shutting down the federal government because of winter weather costs taxpayers money, or does it?

WASHINGTON-First came the snowpocalypse. Then snowmageddon. And last but not least: snoverkill.

With snowfall this season reaching biblical proportions, the Washington, D.C., area is enduring its snowiest winter ever. This week's blizzard helped the nation's capital break a 112-year-old record: So far this winter the city has been blanketed by more than 55 inches of snow.

The region being snoverwhelmed has led to the usual over-hyped antics by The Weather Channel's roving reporters and to a record number of largely snowbound viewers watching last Sunday's Super Bowl. But it has also given federal employees the kind of snow days not seen since they were schoolkids.

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On Friday, more than 250,000 federal workers were expected to report to work for the first time this week. Each paid day off federal employees received because of the whiteout here cost taxpayers as much as $100 million a day. And with four straight days of government closures this week alone, taxpayers were out $400 million in lost productivity.

Some federal workers may have worked from home, but several agencies have strenuous "telework" requirements, including a one-year wait before an employee is eligible to work from home. In this winter's aftermath, lawmakers may try to ease the telework red tape.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, makes the government closure decision each day by 6 p.m. after a conference call with a Council of Governments and more than 100 experts in weather, transportation, security, and electricity.

While no official records are kept, this is the longest federal government shutdown since 1996, said Betty K. Koed, a Senate historian.

In Congress, votes and hearings (including one on global warming) have been delayed. Many lawmakers spent the week in their home districts. The House went ahead and canceled the entire week. With next week an already planned weeklong recess tied to the President's Day holiday, Congress is not expected to return to a regular schedule until the week of Feb. 22. Nominations, healthcare, and a jobs bill are all frozen.

But Brian Darling, a government-relations expert with The Heritage Foundation, said a quiet Congress is not necessarily a bad thing. A $400 million hit in lost productivity may be a small price to pay if it helps stall the $82.5 billion jobs bill now being discussed in the Senate. "When these guys are in town they just spend, spend, spend," he said.

Darling joked that stocks usually go up when Congress is quiet. In fact, stocks did surge 1.1 percent on Thursday-the last day the government was closed. But on Friday, as the government reopened, stocks slid.

President Barack Obama did conduct a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders this week. Later he boasted that the meeting with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Minority Leader. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had gone well. "In fact, I understand that McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together," Obama joked.

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum (a Washington-based nonprofit organization), wrote that maybe the snow would be a soothing respite for a Washington workforce known for its busyness.

"The quiet aftermath of such a snowy interruption is an invitation to stop and pay attention, to enjoy the beauty of the snow and savor the quiet," she reflected. "We can appreciate afresh how indifferent the natural world is to our aspirations and agendas."

Still that is a hard sell for the typical Type A personality found here in Washington: Coffee shops were packed because people were so sick of being at home. Many congressional staffers still went to work every day even though the place was shut down. A Snowpocalypse Facebook page quickly collected more than 12,000 members. And hundreds attended snowball fights throughout the city that were advertised on Twitter or Facebook. Someone even listed the snow fort in his front yard on Craigslist as a sublet.

"I haven't seen this much snow in all my life, including the years I lived in Chicago," said local resident Paul Donnell. "After Obama's been in office for a year I would have expected him to enact more change in D.C.'s snow removal process."

A 31-year-old consultant, Donnell has gone running four times this week despite the blizzard. He said he could not stay cooped up in his apartment. Still he got more than a few looks from neighbors as he took to the icy streets wearing shorts.

Forecasters are expecting more snow here on Monday. That's bad news for cabin-fevered federal workers. But it may be good news for your stocks.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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