Sequester furloughs force near-shutdown of four agencies

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees(AFGE) gather during a rally on outside the Department of Labor on March 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The demonstrators gathered to protest the effects of the government sequester.

Nearly five percent of the federal workforce will begin their Memorial Day weekend a day early, thanks to the sequester, which forced six federal agencies to furlough a large number of employees on Friday.

At four agencies - the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Office of Management and Budget - nearly all employees were released for the day, forcing each department to suspend all public and intergovernmental services aside from emergency management functions. At the departments of Labor and Interior, a number of employees were also furloughed.

In all, according to WFED radio, nearly 115,000 employees will take an unpaid holiday on Friday due to the automatic spending cuts that began rolling in on March 1, the result of a deficit reduction agreement signed in 2011.

The cuts will impact a variety of services provided by each agency, officials say. In a press release last week, the IRS announced that all offices, all toll-free tax assistance hotlines, the Taxpayer Advocate Service, and nearly 400 taxpayer assistance centers across the country will temporarily shut down. Taxpayers can continue filing returns and paying any due taxes, but no returns will be processed, and tax-payment deadlines will not be pushed back.

In a statement, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said that the agency will still respond to environmental agencies but will not be able to perform "core functions" like site inspections and some criminal investigations, according to the Washington Post.

The furloughs were devised as the least harmful way for the federal budget to absorb the impact of the budget cuts without cutting too deeply into the core functions of each agency, but the closure will surely provide fodder for both parties as they continue brawling over possible revisions to the sequester and future deficit reduction efforts.

Conservatives, some of whom would elect to go a step further and shut down several of the agencies entirely, greeted the furloughs with open arms.

"The more days the IRS is closed, the better our economy will probably do," Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., told Politico. Of furloughs at the Environmental Protection Agency, he added, "I think China will be unhappy if the EPA closes down on Friday. That's fewer jobs that they'll be getting from us."

But Democrats, who have warned for months about the pernicious impact of the automatic spending cuts, have predicted that the public will not look as fondly on the furloughs as some in the GOP.

"People will be calling up because they have legitimate business and wondering why is no one answering my phone," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Politico.

Ultimately, though, the impact of the furloughs may be borne more by the federal employees losing a portion of their paycheck than a public that may not even notice the largest non-weather related shutdown of government services since the 1990s.

"Unless something dramatic occurs such as the Great Lakes catching fire, I don't think the public will think much about it . . . unfortunately," John O'Grady, head of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which includes some affected employees, told the Washington Post.