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.”
The White House hasn’t offered an estimate of the number of workers facing furlough. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, placed the number at between 800,000 and one million. Half of the union’s members “may be locked out of work altogether during this shutdown,” Cox said, while the other half “will be expected to continue to work without a paycheck.”
“I have made crystal clear to the administration that federal employees have already sacrificed more than enough to these serial, manufactured budget crises,” Cox said. “After three years of frozen pay, unpaid furloughs, huge increases in retirement costs for new employees and the threat of massive layoffs at the Department of Defense and elsewhere, Congress and the administration need to keep their hands off of federal employees once and for all.”
Cox said the pay and benefits afforded federal workers “cannot be used again as a pointless gesture of goodwill, an olive branch, or bargaining chip to try to appease extremists.” The American Federation of Government Employees issued a statement asserting that “some politicians in Washington want a shutdown so they can make a political point. It’s immoral. And it makes a mockery of democracy and everything this country stands for.”
“The administration must keep its promise not to negotiate with bullies, to stand firm in opposition to each and every attempt to freeze pay, cut federal retirement, cut Social Security benefits or undermine health care of its own workforce,” Cox said.
So what happens when the government partially shuts down? Federal agencies began a process last Friday of informing employees whether they will be required to work or be furloughed. All employees are expected to show up for work on Tuesday, with those furloughed signing papers agreeing that they won’t participate in any activities dealing with their job for the duration. Those workers will be sent home after spending no more than four hours on site.
So-called “excepted” employees will continue to work. Federal law exempts workers in a small number of categories from furloughs – mostly those responsible for protecting public health, safety and property. White House employees responsible for aiding the president in carrying out his constitutional duties also are exempted.
Each agency is responsible for developing a plan of action based on information provided by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. All of the plans have been reviewed by the White House.
While large chunks of the government will be affected, some services remain available.
“If you’re on Social Security, you will keep receiving your checks,” Obama said. “If you’re on Medicare, your doctor will still see you. Everyone’s mail will still be delivered. And government operations related to national security or public safety will go on. Our troops will continue to serve with skill, honor, and courage. Air traffic controllers, prison guards, those who are with border control — our Border Patrol will remain on their posts, but their paychecks will be delayed until the government reopens. NASA will shut down almost entirely, but Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the Space Station.”
At the same time, Obama said, the partial shutdown will have a devastating impact on some services.
“Office buildings would close,” he said. “Paychecks would be delayed. Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung. Business owners would see delays in raising capital, seeking infrastructure permits, or rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for their country will find their support centers unstaffed. Tourists will find every one of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Smithsonian to the Statue of Liberty, immediately closed. And of course, the communities and small businesses that rely on these national treasures for their livelihoods will be out of customers and out of luck.”
At the Pentagon, officials maintain that active military personnel — including those deployed to Afghanistan and on warships off the Syrian coast – will remain on duty. But about half of the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian employees will likely be furloughed.
The FBI with its 16,000 agents will remain up and running, deemed an essential service. Most State Department employees likewise will remain on the job as a result of their diplomatic and security functions.
By the way, you still have to pay your taxes – all payments will be processed.
Ironically, Obama maintains the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, central to the partisan dispute, will go into effect Oct. 1 regardless of the federal government’s operational status.
“An important part of the Affordable Care Act takes effect tomorrow no matter what Congress decides to do today,” Obama said. “The Affordable Care Act is moving forward. That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down.”