WASHINGTON – More than 800,000 federal workers, ranging from orderlies in Veterans Administration hospitals to lawyers with the Securities and Exchange Commission, face furloughs today with no hint of when they might be called back to work.
Congress proved unable to arrive at a stopgap spending plan by the Sept. 30 deadline, which marked the end of the federal fiscal year. Bereft of spending authority, with a debate over the fate of the Affordable Care Act complicating matters, the federal government was required to partially shut down for the 17th time since 1977, according to the Congressional Research Service.
While many of those shutdowns were short-lived – most lasting no more than a day or two – some episodes dragged on for weeks. The most recent closure, which began on Dec. 16, 1995, when then-President Bill Clinton and Congress were unable to arrive at a spending plan, lasted three weeks and cost an estimated $2.1 billion in 2013 dollars.
The federal government is America’s largest employer, accounting for more than 2 million civilian workers and 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, serving in all 50 states and around the world.
“In the event of a government shutdown hundreds of thousands of those dedicated public servants who stay on the job will do so without pay,” President Obama said during a Monday briefing. “And several hundred thousand more will be immediately and indefinitely furloughed without pay. What, of course, will not be furloughed are the bills that they have to pay – mortgages, tuition payments, their car notes.”
“These Americans are our neighbors — their kids go to our schools, they worship where we do, they serve their country with pride, they are the customers of every business in this country — and they would be hurt greatly and as a consequence all of us would be hurt greatly should Congress choose to shut the people’s government down,” Obama added. “So a shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people right away.”
Obama pressed House Republicans, who are being urged on by Tea Party elements, to abandon their strategy to force government to partially close unless Democrats acquiesced on the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, the singular achievement of the president’s first five years in office.
“Unfortunately, right now, House Republicans continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands like limiting a woman’s access to contraception, or delaying the Affordable Care Act, all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party,” Obama said.
On the other side of the political aisle, Republicans are blaming White House intransigence for shoving the government to the brink. House Republicans thus far have insisted on amending the proposed continuing resolution – a stopgap spending measure slated to run to Nov. 15 – to defund the healthcare law for at least a year.
Every time the House has included a defunding provision in the CR, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, has returned it with the Obamacare language deleted, doing so with the support of the Democratic majority in the upper chamber. Reid is insisting on a “clean” continuing resolution, but House Republicans continue to press for a delay in the law’s implementation.
The most recent House offer proposes to delay for one year a requirement that all Americans obtain health insurance, eliminate federal healthcare subsidies for members of Congress and congressional staff and make the president and his political staff subject to the same Obamacare requirements as everyone else.
Even if a continuing resolution with an Obamacare amendment were to pass both chambers, the president has vowed to veto it.
“All the president has to do is say yes and the government is funded tomorrow,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said the art of compromise “apparently has been lost on President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.” Whitfield said he is “extremely disappointed that the president and the Senate Majority Leader were unwilling to work with the House of Representatives to reach an agreement to keep the government funded and prevent a shutdown.”
“The simple fact remains that Obamacare is not ready for implementation, and that is why the president has been using an unfair, piecemeal approach to delay certain components of the law while keeping others,” Whitfield said. “It will also increase health care premiums on Kentuckians anywhere from 65 to 106 percent, and that is not something that they can afford in this economy under President Obama’s leadership.”
Democrats reject the GOP’s Obamacare critique and insist they stop playing games, asserting that they have already offered a compromise.
“We are against shutting down the government,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. “Shutting down the government is bad policy, it undermines the confidence of our people, our national security, our economy and the creation of jobs.”
Hoyer said the Democratic caucus is willing to support a temporary spending measure even if it doesn’t provide the amount of funding it supports. The Republican-endorsed continuing resolution sets funding levels at an annualized total of $986 billion – about $70 billion less than what the Democratic-controlled Senate endorsed as part of its comprehensive budget plan in April.
“We are asking them to take yes for an answer,” Hoyer said. “We hope they take yes for an answer. This is not a negotiation. We are taking their number, and we would hope that they could also take their number, so that we can keep the government open, keep America’s confidence at a level of respect for their representatives sent to the Congress of the United States to make sure that government works well for them and their families.”