Put your Blackberry down, and step away from the device.
That’s the order leaders on Capitol Hill are giving their aides should lawmakers fail to reach a budget compromise and force the federal government into shutdown. “Non-essential” Hill staffers are not allowed to use their Blackberry devices or any other government property during a furlough, Senate Chiefs of Staff are telling their aides. Government attorneys inside the Justice Department, meanwhile, are trying to determine whether they would be breaking U.S. law if they don’t abandon their devices, too.
Justice Department folks are privately debating whether a Civil War-era law – that has never been used to charge anyone – could force them to turn off their Blackberry devices. The Antideficiency Act prohibits, among many other things, a federal employee from “accepting voluntary services for the United States … except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Would using a government-issued Blackberry at home – with no pay for any work done – constitute voluntary services to the United States and, thus, a violation of the Antideficiency Act?
Anyone who violates the law could be fired, and anyone who "knowingly and willfully" violates the law "shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than 2 years, or both," says the Act, first passed in 1870 and updated several times since.
Former Justice Department official Tom Dupree explained the purpose of the law is to prevent federal employees from making unauthorized expenditures or incurring unauthorized debts.
“The concern is that someone would work for the government for a year on a ‘voluntary’ basis and then demand payment for all the work he did,” Dupree said, adding that federal workers tied to their Blackberry devices shouldn’t fret too much.
“Enforcement against an individual for working during a shutdown is unlikely from a practical standpoint,” he said. “It's not as though someone will come in during the shutdown, do a little work while the office was quiet, and then demand to be paid. It may have more of a practical effect in terms of barring supervisors from ordering their subordinates to come in during the shutdown and work for free.”
In the end, Dupree said, it is “exceedingly unlikely” that federal workers would be prosecuted for using their Blackberry devices during a shutdown, or even for showing up at work – as long as they don’t cause the government to spend money or incur debt.