The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

October 2, 2013

The numbers that show how essential an agency is

WASHINGTON (AP) — NASA may have the Right Stuff, but it's not essential.

In fact, of all the larger government agencies, NASA is sending the largest percentage home in the government shutdown because they are considered not essential.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which usually doesn't grab attention unless something goes wrong, has one of the highest percentage of workers considered essential and staying on.

In a city where being essential is considered as fundamental as breathing, the essential workers number is the real indicator of importance — politically and otherwise.

It's the essential number on being essential.

"It tells you who has juice and who can protect their workers," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "It is an indicator of who is popular, who is homecoming queen, who is homecoming king and who is coming in last."

NASA comes up last.

Only 3 percent of its workers are essential. The space agency doesn't have a launch scheduled until November. The space shuttle has been retired for a couple of years. The phrase "The Right Stuff" showing astronauts' can-do spirit dates to a movie and book that are at least 30 years old.

The space agency, which turned 55 on the day it essentially shut its doors, took seriously the threshold of only using workers protecting life or property, so "it doesn't mean (NASA) isn't important by any stretch," agency spokesman Bob Jacobs said Monday before he was deemed nonessential.

In general, about 60 percent of the 2.1 million federal workforce is still working during the shutdown. But some not-so-loved federal agencies can't even muster 10 percent on the essential meter.

The Environmental Protection Agency, often a whipping boy for Republicans in Congress, has only 6 percent of its workers listed as essential. So does the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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