Shutdown Threat Has Federal Agencies in Scramble Mode

House Defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., left, shakes hands with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday,  April 16, 2013, prior to Hagel testifying before the committee's hearing on the Defense Department's fiscal 2014 budget request. 
National Journal
Clara Ritger and Sophie Novack
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Clara Ritger Sophie Novack
Sept. 24, 2013, 4:28 p.m.

The gov­ern­ment may shut down next week, but the Na­tion­al Zoo’s baby panda still needs to eat.

“We would nev­er, ever leave the an­im­als un­at­ten­ded,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokes­wo­man for the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion, which runs the zoo.

But the zoo — along with all the Smith­so­ni­an mu­seums and many oth­er fa­cil­it­ies op­er­ated by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — would not be open to the pub­lic dur­ing a shut­down, St. Thomas said.

“The zoo will have keep­ers, veter­in­ary staff, com­mis­sary, se­cur­ity, some fa­cil­it­ies people; there will be a num­ber of people there who will be ex­emp­ted,” she ex­plained. And among those es­sen­tial per­son­nel are staffers who care for the panda cub born on Aug. 23. Asked wheth­er the new ar­rival would con­tin­ue to be fed, St. Thomas laughed. “I think her moth­er is tak­ing care of that, ac­tu­ally.”

The con­tin­ued care for the an­im­als at the Na­tion­al Zoo il­lus­trates two im­port­ant points to re­mem­ber about the loom­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down: The gov­ern­ment con­trols the pro­cess, and a shut­down doesn’t mean everything sud­denly goes dark.

While the de­cision to force a shut­down lies with Con­gress, the ex­ec­ut­ive branch and its agen­cies are able to de­term­ine the way it is done through con­tin­gency plans that are drawn up ahead of time.

“At this time, prudent man­age­ment re­quires that the gov­ern­ment plan for the pos­sib­il­ity of a lapse and OMB is work­ing with agen­cies to take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion,” Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget spokes­wo­man Emily Cain wrote in an e-mail to Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. “This in­cludes agen­cies re­view­ing rel­ev­ant leg­al re­quire­ments and up­dat­ing their plans for ex­ecut­ing an or­derly shut­down, as out­lined in the guid­ance OMB is­sued last week.”

Much of the gov­ern­ment will re­main open in the event of a shut­down. The fail­ure of Con­gress to pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion would res­ult in a tem­por­ary lapse in fed­er­al dis­cre­tion­ary budget au­thor­ity, which means pro­grams de­pend­ent on these funds would likely close. However, pro­grams that are per­man­ent law and those re­ceiv­ing man­dat­ory or mul­ti­year fund­ing would con­tin­ue to be fun­ded.

The Postal Ser­vice would con­tin­ue be­cause it is not fun­ded through an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations. So­cial Se­cur­ity checks would still be sent out and Medi­care would con­tin­ue be­cause the en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams rely on man­dat­ory, rather than dis­cre­tion­ary, fund­ing sources. However, new ap­plic­ants will likely not have their ap­plic­a­tions pro­cessed un­til fund­ing re­sumes; in the shut­down of 1996, more than 10,000 Medi­care ap­plic­ants were turned away each day.

Some sup­port­ive ser­vices for these pro­grams that rely on dis­cre­tion­ary funds could con­tin­ue run­ning as well. “Even in a shut­down, dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing would have to con­tin­ue be­cause the ex­ist­ence of man­dat­ory pro­grams would mean there have to be people avail­able for them to run,” said Paul Van de Wa­ter, a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies.

Na­tion­al se­cur­ity op­er­a­tions and pro­grams, and em­ploy­ees con­sidered es­sen­tial to pro­tec­tion of life and prop­erty, will not be af­fected. These in­clude air-traffic con­trol, im­mig­ra­tion, bor­der se­cur­ity, emer­gency and dis­aster as­sist­ance, and law en­force­ment, among oth­ers.

While non­es­sen­tial gov­ern­ment work­ers would be fur­loughed, es­sen­tial work­ers would con­tin­ue in their ca­pa­cit­ies, though of­ten without im­me­di­ate com­pens­a­tion. If and when em­ploy­ees are com­pensated ret­ro­act­ively is up to Con­gress.

This would have a large im­pact on the De­fense De­part­ment this year, which was not the case in 1995 and 1996. Where­as four ap­pro­pri­ations bills had passed be­fore the last shut­down — in­clud­ing de­fense — none have been ap­proved this year. Troops would thus be re­quired to con­tin­ue work­ing without com­pens­a­tion to them or their fam­il­ies. “All mil­it­ary per­son­nel will con­tin­ue to serve and ac­crue pay, but will not ac­tu­ally be paid un­til ap­pro­pri­ations are avail­able,” said House De­fense Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Bill Young, R-Fla. He warned that a shut­down will hurt both read­i­ness and mor­ale.

Reg­u­lat­ory agen­cies would also be strongly af­fected, in­clud­ing the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, which will “ef­fect­ively shut down,” ac­cord­ing to EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy. She told re­port­ers Monday that the agency would not be able to pay em­ploy­ees un­less Con­gress ap­proves a budget, and only some staff would re­main on hand in case of emer­gen­cies.

The Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health dir­ec­ted press in­quir­ies to OMB, which has not yet made agen­cies’ up­dated con­tin­gency plans pub­licly avail­able. But dur­ing the shut­down over the fisc­al 1996 budget, NIH stopped ac­cept­ing new pa­tients in­to its clin­ic­al cen­ter, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port. The re­port also said NIH stopped an­swer­ing calls to its hot­line, and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion stopped dis­ease sur­veil­lance.

Oth­er routine gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions would also be tem­por­ar­ily shut down, in­clud­ing the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice.

Wash­ing­ton would likely be hit harder than most areas by a gov­ern­ment shut­down, as the D.C. gov­ern­ment is the only one for­bid­den from spend­ing loc­al funds dur­ing a fed­er­al budget lapse. Pub­lic-safety ex­cep­tions still hold true, so po­lice, EMS, and fire­fight­ers would re­main on duty, and the city’s pub­lic schools would stay open. However, trash col­lec­tion and street sweep­ing would be sus­pen­ded, and the De­part­ment of Mo­tor Vehicles, De­part­ment of Pub­lic Works, and oth­ers would close.

However, D.C. May­or Vin­cent Gray sent a let­ter to OMB Wed­nes­day, say­ing he has de­term­ined all op­er­a­tions of the D.C. gov­ern­ment to be es­sen­tial. “It is ri­dicu­lous that a city of 632,000 people—a city where we have bal­anced our budget for over 18 con­sec­ut­ive years and have a rainy day fund of well over a bil­lion dol­lars—can­not spend its res­id­ents’ own tax dol­lars to provide them the ser­vices they’ve paid for without Con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al,” Gray said in a state­ment. 

Gray’s de­clar­a­tion would keep D.C. gov­ern­ment activ­it­ies run­ning through a shut­down.  

Up­dated Septem­ber 25.

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