NASA may have the right stuff, but it's not essential.
In fact, of all the larger government agencies, NASA is sending home the biggest percentage of workers in the government shutdown because they are considered nonessential.
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 percentages 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."
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," meaning 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-person federal workforce is 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 post for Republicans in Congress, has only 6 percent of its workers listed as essential. So does the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ever the decimal counters, the Internal Revenue Service has only 9.3 percent working during the shutdown.
On the low side of the essential ranking, you can find the departments of Education (10 percent), Treasury (18 percent), Interior (20 percent), and Labor (22 percent).
Even working in James Bond-type agencies doesn't give you more juice than the people who deal with planes, trains and automobiles — or even tomatoes.
About 30 percent of civilian workers in the nation's intelligence agencies are still working, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Congress on Wednesday. That's about the same as in the Department of Agriculture, but nothing compared with the 67 percent of Department of Transportation workers still on the job.
The Department of Homeland Security, with 86 percent, and the Justice Department, with 84 percent, are high on the essential worker list.
Then there's the VA, where 95 percent of employees are still on the job.
"You cannot close a VA hospital. You can't do it politically. You can't do it for the good of the patient," Light said.
Officials at the Department of State, unlike other agencies, don't have a percentage for how many of their workers are essential, but they said Wednesday that basically none of its 77,000 employees had been furloughed.
The whole essential ranking "is a little bit of 'Mean Girls' mixed in with 'The Right Stuff,'" Light said. "Only 'The Right Stuff' doesn't happen to be the space program."
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