WASHINGTON, D.C. — Here we go again.
The nation once again faces the possibility of a federal government shutdown. What could it mean for Hawaii?
Salary payments to members of the military could face delays, which would be a particular problem for soldiers who live from one paycheck to the next. People in need of passports would have to wait longer. Many federal workers — including those who took forced furloughs because of sequestration budget cuts earlier this year — could endure more furloughs, which would mean lower annual salaries than they expected.
And, among the many other immediate effects, locations that are served by federal employees, such as national parks, could close. The situation is similar to a barely averted shutdown in 2011 that was expected to furlough approximately 800,000 — nearly 40 percent — of the 2.1 million government employment.
To avoid a partial shutdown of the government, Congress will have to agree on an emergency funding agreement. The prospects for a compromise dimmed Friday when the Republican House tacked an unrelated plan to de-fund Obamacare into its version of a stopgap spending measure. Democrats say that it is a non-starter.
A "shutdown" would not mean that everything closes; "essential" federal workers — including those who provide national security and who play crucial foreign affairs roles — would continue working. So would many others.
Who continues to work and who does not all depends on the contingency plans that federal agencies put into place in the next week. But plans for previous shutdowns suggest that mandatory entitlements will continue. Social Security checks and Medicare support will likely continue, as will veterans benefits. The Postal Service, which is self-funded by fees and the cost of stamps, will still deliver the mail.
Under instructions sent out by the Office of Management and Budget, agencies will keep on “essential” personnel. Just who that includes is still being determined, Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw told Civil Beat on Friday.
However, when the government planned for the potential shutdown in 2011 — plans that proved unnecessary thanks to a last-minute budget deal — it decided to keep military personnel serving in conflicts overseas, air traffic controllers, airport screeners and border patrol agents on duty.
But losing hundreds of thousands of employees, likely for the duration of a shutdown, would have negative effects on a wide range of areas.
Pentagon spokesman Bill Irvin told Civil Beat that the Department of Defense's plan would be consistent with plans that it prepared for previous threatened shutdowns, although he declined to enumerate what the current plan is.
But speaking to reporters as the nation faced a shutdown in 2011, then-defense Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said all military personnel — in Hawaii and abroad — would be required to report to duty, even though their paychecks would be delayed until the government reopened. At the time, Gates acknowledged the difficulty troops might face when he said, “You all know as well as I do, a lot of these young troops live pretty much paycheck to paycheck. And I start to think about the inconvenience that its going to cause these kids and a lot of their families, even half a paycheck delayed can be a problem for them, so I hope they work this whole thing out.”
According to a guide put out by the Department of Veterans Affairs in preparation for the potential 2011 shutdown, people applying for new compensation or pension benefits would have to wait because the people processing them would be furloughed. Getting approval to take classes or get vocational rehabilitation would also be delayed.
Even dead soldiers could face a troubling limbo because burials at national cemeteries would slow down. A number of VA phone lines, including those used to respond to billing issues, would go unanswered. (However, medical facilities and counseling issues would continue operating. Existing pension, disability and compensation payments would continue to be paid.)
An Aug. 6, 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service, which examined two government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, laid out other possibilities for the next closure.
The report noted that 368 National Park Service sites were closed, costing local communities near national parks an estimated $14.2 million per day in tourism. Officials from the Hawaii Tourism Authority declined to comment Friday about what the local impact might be.
The CRS report also noted that about 20,000 to 30,000 applications for travel visas for foreigners wanting to visit the U.S. went unprocessed each day. The report said 200,000 U.S. applications for passports were not dealt with.
Sen. Brian Schatz laid out what he believes the stakes are, as well as his ardent desire to avoid a shutdown, in a written statement on Friday. “Congress must pass a continuing (budget) resolution to prevent the government from shutting down. Without it, hundreds of thousands of federal workers could be furloughed, Social Security and veterans benefits could be stalled. Defense Department cuts from sequestration alone have already cost Hawaii an estimated $42 million because 12,700 employees had to be furloughed in our state."
The debate to keep the government running is just one of two looming crises facing Congress. Shortly after the stopgap budget issue is resolved one way or the other, Congress will have to take up raising the debt ceiling to keep the nation from reneging on its loans. Basically, before the U.S. government breaches a predefined limit on how much the U.S. Treasury can borrow to meet the government's obligations, Congress has to approve increasing the limit — and many of President Obama's political opponents on the right insist that they will not agree to do so.
A default would have broad consequences that would affect people across the nation, as well as in Hawaii, hurting the economy and raising interest rates, said Honolulu economist Paul Brewbaker.
Where Budget Battles Meet Electoral Politics
The multiple budget showdowns could also have political implications.
With Republicans trying to assuage Tea Party activists by insisting on defunding Obamacare, they risk being blamed again for causing a shutdown, as they were in 1995. Though many conservative commentators these days are once again saying a shutdown would not hurt Republicans, the Atlantic noted that the 1995 shutdown, driven by Republicans set on weakening a Democratic leader, led to President Bill Clinton's landslide victory in 1996.
Schatz criticized Republicans in a written statement on Friday for complicating the debate by injecting the defunding of health reform into the budget talks. “I will refuse to engage in the process of political gymnastics designed to score small, short-term wins at the expense of the American people. It should be pointed out that anyone who wants to grind the entire government to a halt over the implementation of this law will cause harm to their communities, who use federal funding to provide essential services and programs to constituents in every state and every district."
While the previous shutdown highlights the ways that an opposition party can hurt itself by overreaching in opposition to a sitting president, there are risks for the Democrats, too. This applies to Hawaii’s delegation, especially for both Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as they campaign for the Hawaii Senate seat held by Schatz. Both have repeatedly condemned sequestration budget cuts, and yet both may have to vote in favor of a stopgap funding measure that continues sequestration until Dec. 15, leaving themselves open to charges of hypocrisy.
In March, when the government faced a shutdown, the House had ample votes to pass a spending measure without Hanabusa. That allowed her to vote against the measure, which left sequestration in place, without actually risking a shutdown. It also enabled her to highlight her no vote in campaign emails, telling campaign supporters in one, “I voted against the sequester precisely because of the disproportionate impact the mandatory cuts have on Hawaii's families.”
On Friday, she cited sequestration as one reason for voting against the House stopgap spending measure, saying, “the measure reaffirms sequestration and its damaging across-the-board cuts, which have already caused significant problems back home in Hawaii."
Any compromise measure that arises in the next week will likely leave the sequestration cuts in place and fund Obamacare. As Roll Call noted, with some House Republicans likely to vote against a compromise because of Obamacare, House Democrats may have to join with moderate Republicans to vote for a package to keep the government running. That could place great pressure on Hanabusa to vote for a budget that maintains sequestration this time.
Asked by Civil Beat whether Hanabusa would vote for a temporary spending bill that would leave sequestration cuts in place, if it would prevent a shutdown, Hanabusa spokesman Richard Rapoza said the answer would depend on the details of the proposal. In an email to Civil Beat, Rapoza said Hanabusa would consider the level of funding in the continuing resolution “and whether it constitutes a compromise that ends Congress’ kicking the can down the road and putting our economy at risk with every self-imposed crisis.”
“It's misleading to look at the question as black or white,” Rapoza added, “or to assume that the details are unimportant."
Schatz has also railed against sequestration, saying in one interview that sequestration should never have been created.
But he may be forced, as he was in March, to vote for a funding measure that keeps sequestration cuts in place.
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