WASHINGTON — The conservatives who propelled the first federal shutdown in 17 years have argued they are fighting for smaller, less costly, less-intrusive government. But a vote over the weekend to grant back pay to furloughed federal workers would negate any savings from a government shutdown and is more likely to raise net costs to taxpayers, according to government and outside estimates.
The move highlights another peculiarity of shutting down the government: under Washington’s political calculus, sending employees home for an indefinite period does not save money.
Instead, if the Senate agrees and President Obama signs the legislation as expected, it will mean hundreds of thousands of workers will get what amounts to extra paid holidays — which they didn’t want — even as millions of Americans are unable to visit national monuments, process loans, or obtain other services.
“The public doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the efficiency of the federal government,” said G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as budget director for former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist. “Well, they should have even less when they’re getting paid for not doing anything.”
Government estimates put the cost of the last shutdowns, which lasted a total of 27 days in 1995 and 1996, at $1.4 billion, or $2.1 billion in today’s dollars. Most of that cost was attributed to paying back wages for furloughed employees.
But there are probably going to be secondary costs, marginal in size but symbolically significant, which have yet to be estimated. They include the expense of getting the government back on its feet once the shutdown is over and paying for higher bids submitted by contractors who are hedging against future instability.
The director of the Congressional Budget Office has said shutdown-related waste is compounded by the uncertainty and planning required by government agencies before the shutdown, as they put off projects and drafted contingency plans.
“You can’t explain it very well” to constituents, conceded Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. “It doesn’t make any sense. I didn’t agree with the shutdown in the first place.”
But, he said federal workers should still get paid.
“We caused this headache. It wasn’t them,” Flake said. “We ought to make them whole.”
House Republicans have been aggressive in insisting on delays or significant changes to Obama’s health care law as a condition for funding the government. One of them, John Campbell of California, said the shutdown was never about trying to save money, but instead is a forum for the larger ideological struggle over the law.
“This is what brings this to a head, to fight for the things that are important. The shutdown isn’t important, but Obamacare is important,” Campbell said. “We’re not fighting for a shutdown. Nobody particularly wanted this, or anything else. What it is, is it’s an inflection point.”
In other words, its the strongest leverage Republicans had, even if it will result in wasted resources.
Last Tuesday’s shutdown made it illegal for about 800,000 federal employees deemed “nonessential” to show up for work, because the funding to keep the government open had not been approved.
But the Republican-led House voted unanimously Saturday, 407-0, to pay those workers retroactively — only after the shutdown ends — which has been the practice in previous shutdowns.
The White House has indicated support for the move, as have Senate Democrats, though the measure will probably be delayed because of procedural roadblocks raised by Senate Republicans.
So even though the workers will probably get paid, they still can’t go back to work.
That left many federal workers with nothing to do but knit — literally.
Julie Flores Kriegsfeld, who designs air control surveillance systems for the Federal Aviation Administration, is one of about 30 people who took advantage of an offer for free knitting lessons for furloughed employees at Fibre Space, a store in Alexandria, Va.
“All of us have work to be done,” Kriegsfeld said, as she practiced her purling technique. “Congress would rather have us stay home and go ahead and pay us for that, but not get any work out of it. I don’t know how they feel like that’s a reasonable mindset.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reduced some of the waste Saturday, ordering most of the Pentagon’s 350,000 civilian workers to return to work, leaving about 450,000 workers still furloughed.
Hagel’s decision is one of many that demonstrate the considerable wiggle room within the term “essential.” The District of Columbia government, for example, declared all of its workers essential to avoid the prospect of cutting off trash pickup or closing libraries.
But the act of shutting things down has resulted in a number of head-scratching scenarios, particularly in the nation’s capital, which is heavily dependant on federal funds.
Law enforcement officials were guarding one entrance to the National Zoo last week, because employees were not supposed to be working there and visitors were not allowed inside. Yet just a few feet away, contractors were hard at work rebuilding a second entrance.
There was also a symbolic barricade placed in the middle of a major bicycle path that did nothing but force riders to weave momentarily before resuming their unauthorized rides. Such scenes were playing out across the country.
Despite the urgency of the shutdown and an Oct. 17 deadline to raise the national debt limit and avoid an economically catastrophic default, the Capitol was fairly quiet Monday. Both the Senate and the House waited until the early evening to hold votes.
Many workers remained on furlough and, with tours of the building unavailable, a handful of House members guided small groups of their constituents through the building.
As the second major fiscal deadline approaches, Gene Sperling, the National Economic Council director, said Monday at a breakfast that the White House would be open to a short-term bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. Majority leader Harry Reid’s office said the Senate would probably begin taking votes this week on a longer-term bill to raise the debt limit.
House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, did not respond directly to questions Monday about the waste associated with keeping the government closed while agreeing to pay idle workers in the future.
“These workers are the victims of Senate Democrats’ refusal to pass a spending bill that provides fairness for all Americans under Obamacare,” Steel said in an e-mail.
That has been a constant refrain, as Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the shutdown. While the outcome remains unclear, what is increasingly apparent is that voter anger is rising.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed growing disapproval of the way Congress and Obama are handling the budget controversy.
But the GOP continued to bear the greatest responsibility, with 70 percent of respondents saying they disapprove of the way congressional Republicans have handled the matter. Democrats in Congress got 61 percent disapproval for their performance on the matter; Obama got 51 percent disapproval.
Globe correspondent Mattias Gugel contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.