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Shutdown Revives Talk About Who Is 'Essential'

Issue goes to heart of debate over size of government

ASON KARP didn't want to be sent home from work yesterday morning.

But, like 800,000 other federal employees in Washington and around the nation, the Federal Communications Commission lawyer was declared ''nonessential'' and was ready to leave, if the budget impasse persisted.

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''I'm very disappointed that it's come to this...,'' Mr. Karp says wistfully. Besides, he adds, he has a lot of work to do, and he's barred by law from working for the government without pay - even from home.

Work wasn't going to be much fun either for the 1.2 million civilian employees who were deemed ''essential'' and supposed to stay on duty. Skeleton staffs were to keep many agencies from going dark. At the Office of Government Ethics, for example, two people - the director and the chief counsel - manned the phones for an 85-person operation. So much for ethics.

Welcome to what has been billed as the Great Government Shutdown of 1995.

No matter how brief, the brinkmanship between President Clinton and congressional Republicans forced the much-maligned federal government into determining how big it really needs to be to perform essential services.

For some Americans, just asking the question proves the Republican point that government is too big and that legions of bureaucrats are, when push comes to shove, unnecessary. It is enough to throw the ''nonessentials'' into a state of existential angst.

Karp, the FCC lawyer, seems to be taking it all stride. ''The government performs such a wide variety of functions that citizens don't know much about, but which they indirectly benefit from,'' says Karp, who works on regulation of the telephone industry. ''If some things stop for a day or two, we may not miss them,'' he continues. ''But this doesn't tell us we don't need them at all.''

The FCC, for example, has suspended work on its lucrative spectrum auctions, which so far have won $9 billion for federal coffers. Managers at federal agencies have been working on their partial shutdown plans since August, when it became clear that Congress and Clinton might be heading for an impasse. The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance on who should stay on duty: those necessary to protect the life, property, welfare, and safety of the American people.

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So all 1.5 million men and women in military uniforms remain on active duty. Ditto for air-traffic controllers. But the recreation picture is less clear.

All 90 million acres of federal wildlife refuge were supposed to be closed; government-sanctioned hunting expeditions would be canceled. But game inspectors will remain on duty, and personnel will remain at hatcheries to feed the fish.

Some national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, were to stay open with at least a skeletal crew, though entrance fees may be waived if there aren't enough rangers to collect them.

The space shuttle will remain in orbit, while NASA TV, the entity that provides footage of the astronauts during the mission, could be closed. But no, the astronauts will not be cut off from mission control. ''I've heard all the jokes about calling Houston and getting an answering machine,'' says Dwayne Brown, NASA's deputy news chief. ''That won't happen.''

While Social Security checks will go out, people who have benefit problems or need to apply for them will find office doors locked. And if you're wondering how many federal workers it takes to change a light bulb, the answer for now is zero. It won't get changed. A bare-bones staff at the General Services Administration was to provide only security and emergency repairs, not routine maintenance, says GSA spokesman Steve Guiheen.

The US Geological Survey will continue monitoring for signs of earthquakes. Pipeline and railroad inspectors will continue searching for cracks. Voice of America will stay on the air. Members of Congress will cut back on staff, but members themselves will work. And they - along with the president and federal judges - will all definitely be paid.

So will the ''essential'' workers, whom the government is obligated to compensate. But those sent home have to sweat it out for now, though Congress has vowed to pay them later. After past shutdowns, Congress voted to pay furloughed workers for the time off, fearing lawsuits from employee unions. But there's always concern the shutdown will last long enough to delay paychecks, which for many workers could mean paying the bills late.

Then there are the nondefense-related federal agencies that knew well before Tuesday that they'd avoid the shutdown escapade. The Agriculture Department had the great fortune of being the only Cabinet agency whose appropriations bill has been passed by Congress and signed by the president, thus securing its funding for fiscal year 1996.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also opened for business as usual on Tuesday. According to an agency spokesman, the SEC has a couple of weeks' worth of ''no-year funds'' - leftover money - available to keep the place functioning at full staff, presumably long enough to weather the budget battle.

At the National Zoo, Azy the orangutan wasn't afforded the luxury of a day off. Even though the zoo faced shutdown, he would still have to work on his computer skills at a new exhibit on how animals think. And of course he and his fellow zoo denizens would still be fed. But Homo sapiens need not despair: Anyone can still visit the zoo via the World Wide Web, at

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