Congressional Budget Squabble Shuts Down Most Tech-Oriented Agencies

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-10-02

When the U.S. House of Representatives killed any chance of a budget compromise on Oct. 1, a number of federal agencies shut down with no indication as to when they might resume operations. But a few agencies found ways to stay open.

NASA's regular Website home page was offline on Oct. 1. Instead visitors were redirected to the generic usa.gov site, which tells you the agency has shut down operations. You get a similar message at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Website for the Federal Communications Commission is still running, but it tells you that all but a handful of people have been furloughed and sent home.

Naturally, however, some critical agencies remain in operation. The National Security Agency has kept the lights on, although the agency has stopped updating its Website. A spokesperson for the NSA told eWEEK that the intelligence community is still operational. A separate visit to the Website for the Director of National Intelligence reveals that the agency is only partly operational.

A DNI spokesperson told eWEEK, "The Intelligence Community's ability to identify threats and provide information for a broad set of national security decisions will be diminished for the duration. The immediate and significant reduction in employees on the job means that we will assume greater risk and our ability to support emerging intelligence requirements will be curtailed. The less than 30 percent of Intelligence Community employees who remain on the job will be stretched to the limit and forced to focus only on the most critical security needs."

However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, interestingly, is still open and running as if nothing had ever happened.

So how is it that some agencies important to the IT industry have effectively gone offline, while others seem to be unaffected? Unfortunately, there's no simple answer. The USPTO, for example, is established in the U.S. Constitution and has its own funding that doesn't depend on annual congressional appropriations to the extent that some others do.

But that funding won't last forever. And if the budget deadlock remains in force for more than a few weeks, the USPTO will cease most operations along with the rest of the Department of Commerce as part of a Shutdown Plan that went into effect in September.

The FCC has a similar Shutdown Plan, except that it went into effect on Oct. 1 because that agency does not have its own funding, so most operations ceased after a 4-hour period in which employees turned off the lights. The operations at the FCC that will continue include the acting chairwoman and two other commissioners, as well as some operations that are involved in emergency operations. At the FCC, a number of employees can be called back to work on an "as needed" basis.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology Website is reporting that the agency is closed due to the "lapse in government funding." NIST, meanwhile, will keep the Internet Time Service running, along with the National Vulnerability Database.

Meanwhile, NASA provides no information in regard to its ongoing operations. One wonders if U.S. astronauts are being furloughed, and if so, will they be required to leave the Space Station and return home? I sent an email to several NASA public affairs officers, but only found out that they'd been furloughed.

The effect on the technology industry isn't completely clear. If Congress gets its act together and finds a way to end the shutdown in a few days, there will probably be very little impact. Very few of the agencies' operations are necessary on a minute-by-minute basis.

If the shutdown goes on for more than a few days, however, there could be problems. The FCC has dozens of operations under way at any given time and, in the case of a few such as approving license transfers, the effects could be far-reaching. The same is true of the important work at NIST, which has a lot more going on than just managing the network time protocol.

But never fear, some of the activities we know and love will continue. Patent trolls will still be able to file their abusive and frequently bogus business process patents, for example. But now, with  the Federal Trade Commission closed, it won't be able to do anything to curtail their activities. Even if the FTC has already filed a complaint about their activities, the Department of Justice is also closed, so there is nobody around to bring any enforcement action.

While the law enforcement functions of the DoJ will continue to operate and the federal courts will remain open for the time being, the critical prosecutorial link that brings the bad guys to justice may not be.

The result of this congressional infighting is that your business will get no help from the FCC in expanding your wireless data needs. There is no one at NIST to work on new technical standards. And if you need to update your passport to conduct business in Europe or Asia, you're out of luck.

But at least for the time being, the troops are being paid, and the law enforcement and intelligence agencies are on duty to keep criminals, terrorists and global adversaries at bay. Although you have to wonder why those adversaries would bother attacking the U.S. right now. After all, it appears that we have a Congress that is intent on reducing the nation to third-world status all on its own.