Congress

A government shutdown is looming, but you may hardly notice

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

It may be difficult to see the impact of a government shutdown.

If Congress and President Donald Trump fail to reach an agreement on funding nine Cabinet agencies and several smaller departments by Dec. 21, those parts of government could close.

But other agencies, including the Pentagon, Health and Human Services, Education and energy and water programs, have been funded through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2019.

And most federal employees who perform high-profile, essential duties for officially unfunded agencies— such as the Transportation Security Agency officers manning airport checkpoints — would stay on the job, even as their paychecks are suspended.

Trump has threatened to close down the government if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who is poised to take over in January as House speaker, do not acquiesce to his demand for $5 billion in border wall funding. They have resisted and made it plain Trump will take the blame for a shutdown.

A deal to avert the shutdown seemed elusive as the week began.

“We’re five days away and President Trump doesn’t seem to have a plan,” Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor. “Even with the Republican Congress, no threat or temper tantrum will get the president his wall.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Monday he hoped lawmakers from both sides of the aisle could agree to fund the government in full and make a “substantial investment in the integrity of our border.

“I hope the same bipartisan collaborative spirit that has carried us this far will enable the Senate and the House to complete this business without undue delay,” McConnell said.

The White House signaled over the weekend that it was dug in. White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller said the administration would do “whatever is necessary to build the border wall to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration.”

Asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” if that would lead to a shutdown, Miller replied: “If it comes to it, absolutely. This is a very fundamental issue.”

The House left Thursday morning after a round of votes and isn’t expected back in Washington until Wednesday night — less than 72 hours before funding runs out.

There are alternatives being discussed. Among them: Funding the government agencies through Dec. 26, so Congress can return then and deal with the budget. Or funding the department through Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress — when Pelosi, expected to become the House Speaker, would preside over a House Democratic majority.

Agencies poised to lose funding Friday night include the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce and Justice, along with Homeland Security, though many of its law enforcement agents would keep working because they’re considered “essential.”

Each federal agency develops its own plan for a shutdown, following prior guidance. The plans, coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget, detail which government activities are put on hold and which employees are considered essential and must report to work, even if their pay is delayed.

Despite the limited nature of the shutdown, Senate Democrats painted a grim portrait of what could ensue three days before Christmas. They estimated that even a partial shutdown would affect more than 800,000 federal employees.

President Donald Trump reiterated a threat to shut down parts of the government over his promised border wall with Mexico, and said the military could build the wall if Democrats refuse to vote in favor of the project.

Employees deemed essential are required to continue working, but they’d do so without pay. Democrats estimated that would account for more than 420,000 workers, including federal law enforcement and correctional officers, FBI agents, Forest Service firefighters and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Another 380,000 people would be furloughed, including staffers with NASA and the National Park Service. Though it’s likely parks would stay open, the administration in January noted that parks must “notify visitors that the NPS will cease providing visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities and roads maintenance (including plowing), campground reservation and check-in/check-out services.”

Among the effects cited in an analysis by Senate Democrats:

  • The USDA would close every local and state farm service center and Farm Service Agency staff wouldn’t be available for consultations.

  • Small businesses would not have access to the Small Business Administration’s federally-assisted loans and technical assistance, as SBA guarantees to back loans would freeze.

  • The Federal Housing Administration would experience delays in loan processing and approvals, meaning that people trying to buy a new home or refinance a FHA-insured mortgage would be put on standby.

  • Cities, counties, and states would not be able move forward with Community Development Block Grant projects. Such projects are crucial to urban revival and upkeep.

  • Lease sales and permits for oil, gas, coal and other minerals on federal land and waters would be suspended.

  • Civil litigation, payments to victims, and training for state and local law enforcement would be frozen.

  • Payments to public housing agencies would be delayed, potentially delaying maintenance and emergency repairs.

There could be costs associated with the lack of wages, particularly for small businesses that rely on federal workers or communities that depend on national parks for tourist dollars.

The loss of pay during a 16-day shutdown in 2013 triggered an estimated 2 to 4 percent drop in spending among federal workers, who put off dining out, hiring babysitters and other expenses, according to a 2014 Stanford University study.

The National Park Service that year turned away millions to more than 400 parks and national monuments and estimated that the shutdown led to more than $500 million in lost visitor spending nationwide.

Pelosi said Thursday that she has implored Trump to reach a deal, noting that even temporarily cutting off paychecks would make a difference to some employees.

“Perhaps he doesn’t understand people need their paychecks. Maybe that’s not the life he leads,” Pelosi said.

Trump, in a video released on Twitter late Thursday, accused Democrats of being “absolute hypocrites,” noting that they’ve long backed fences, barriers and other security measures at the border.

“They only don’t want to do it because of me,” he said.

Stan Meiburg, a former EPA acting deputy administrator under President Obama and former EPA Deputy Regional Administrator for the region that covers much of the South, has experienced several shutdowns and said they are always unsettling.

“It’s extraordinarily disruptive while it’s happening, and then when you come back it takes a few weeks to dig out from everything,” he said.

Much of the agency’s work would potentially come to a halt, including cleanup at toxic waste sites. Emergency response is always a worry, but would be covered, said Meiburg, noting a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee occurred on Dec. 22, 2008, 10 years to the day this year’s shutdown could go into effect.

“If life or property is at risk, we would mobilize people and figure out the finances later,” Meiburg said. “But to say it’s disruptive is a massive understatement.”

Facing a shutdown in January, the agency said it would use a particular stream of funding to stay open, but that there would be “restrictions on some things such as travel.”

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