A government shutdown at midnight would deal Lt. Jonathan Bernstein a double blow. He's an Apache helicopter pilot scheduled to drill with his Pennsylvania National Guard unit this weekend, and he's also a freelance historian whose work requires frequent access to the National Archives.
In the event of a shutdown active-duty personnel must report for duty, but members of the National Guard who aren't preparing for imminent deployment will be sidelined. They may or may not be paid later, and how they make up their training is unclear. For a reserve force that has contributed heavily to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, any reduction in training is a hard pill to swallow. But when multiplied across a force that has a presence in every state and U.S. territory, the amount of lost training time is staggering.
During the short-lived government shutdown in November 1995, 160,000 members the National Guard could not complete their regular monthly drills, according to numbers released on Friday by the Center for American Progress.
“The tempo of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan has turned the National Guard and Reserve into an operational, rather than strategic, reserve, which means continuing regular drills is particularly important,” the left-leaning think tank said.
Bernstein says that his unit is transitioning to new aircraft, and he fears that missing this weekend's drill could put members of his unit behind.
Canceling the drill is “really going to affect them negatively,” he said.
Another negative will be the hit to Bernstein's wallet. The extra pay he gets from the National Guard helps augment his family's monthly income. The National Archives would also be closed in a shutdown, jeopardizing his freelance income. Like many members of the Guard, Bernstein received an e-mail earlier this week advising him about the possibility of the weekend drill being postponed. There was no discussion about rescheduling training--and, in terms of pay, he was told to let his superiors know if he would suffer a financial hardship.
Bernstein said he’s not the only one in his unit who could have difficulty balancing his checkbook this month. Junior enlisted members in particular rely on the extra money their Guard duty brings in.
“It’s going to make life difficult for a lot of people,” he said.
A senior Defense Department official briefed reporters on Friday on the Pentagon’s contingency plans in the event of a shutdown. Active-duty troops won't lose any pay, but they won't receive the money until the stalemate is resolved. The situation for the Guard is a bit murkier.
“If we have to shut down the government, we’ll have to tell them to turn around [from traveling to drills] and head home,” the official said. “Under the orderly transition rules, we would probably end up paying them for a good part of the time in expenses [when they] didn’t get any training.”
The Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the shutdown would be “tough on the men and women in the military, who have kids to feed, mortgages and car payments to pay, like we all do.”
Should a shutdown occur, the Defense Department's accounting service has been “working very hard” to “trick the computer system” into compensating military personnel as soon as possible once Congress reaches a budget agreement. If any shutdown is over by April 12, the military believes that it could make payday three days later. If not, the military will work to catch up as quickly as possible once there is an appropriation, rather than wait until the next pay cycle, the official said.
But salaries aren’t the only payments that will be affected. The military will have to cease--or at least significantly scale back--payments to families of service members killed in action. The Defense Department issues 100 to 150 death gratuities every month, about $100,000 for each family.
In terms of services on military bases, schools and day care would remain open, while routine maintenance of buildings and classroom training would be canceled. “We’ve got these broad provisions … [for] safety of life and protection of property,” the Pentagon official said. “So we have to make a judgment about what constitutes safety of life.”