Government shutdown comprehensive review : Jan 24th, 2019

Trump’s recall of furloughed federal workers shows that “nonessential” staff do essential work.

The Daily 202 An unintended consequence? Shutdown highlights the importance and value of government. 

via WaPo Daily 202: by James Hohmann with Joanie Greve

Many conservative hard-liners inside and closely allied with the Trump administration, who have made careers out of bashing the federal bureaucracy, believed a partial shutdown would validate their view that government can function just fine without “nonessential” employees. In fact, the past 33 days have done the opposite.


It turns out just because workers have been categorized as “nonessential” does not mean the work they do is not important. That’s why President Trump keeps calling back more and more furloughed workers to do things like process tax refunds, inspect food, approve loans and issue food stamps.

With no end in sight to the five-week-old impasse, the effects are poised to become both worse and more obvious to more people. One enduring result could be that Americans collectively come to appreciate the value government provides in their everyday lives to a greater degree. The federal court system, for instance, may need to halt major operations after Feb. 1, and the Department of Agriculture does not have funding to pay food stamp benefits come March to roughly 40 million people.

Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address that government could not provide the solution to our problems. “Government is the problem,” he declared. This has been a dominant mentality of the Reagan epoch, which arguably we continue to live in 38 years after he gave that speech. After all, even Bill Clinton declared in 1996 – just days after the end of what until this month was the longest shutdown ever – that “the era of big government is over.” The problem of the present moment, however, is that the government is increasingly struggling to deliver services and benefits that many Americans count on, even if they take them for granted.

— For the slay-the-beast types who hold plum posts in the Trump administration, this shutdown has turned into a teachable moment on what exactly the government does and how important it is to people’s lives. It’s so easy to score cheap political points by talking in the abstract about government “waste.” It’s hard to actually trim “fat” because, almost always, it turns out there’s either a powerful political constituency or a legitimate policy justification for virtually everything federal agencies do.

Several administration officials have acknowledged privately that they did not recognize the breadth of the shutdown’s impact, and the logistical problems it would cause, until they came back from their Christmas vacations, days after the shutdown started on the night of Dec. 21. White House aides have told my colleagues that Trump continues to be largely uninterested in the minutiae of managing government agencies and services. Political appointees have spent the past month trying to fully understand the scope of the shutdown and doing as much as they can – sometimes defying previous interpretations of the law – to mitigate the fallout for Americans.

The shutdown has also put in stark relief the degree to which red, rural states like Alaska and Alabama tend to be more dependent on federal assistance than bluer, urban and wealthier states like California and Connecticut.

— White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is asking agency leaders to identify by the close of business tomorrow the highest-impact programs that would be jeopardized if the shutdown continues into March and April. Erica Werner, Damian Paletta, Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis report: “The request is the first known ask from a top White House official for a broad accounting of the spreading impact of the shutdown. So far, top White House officials have been particularly focused on wait times at airport security but not the sprawling interruption of programs elsewhere in the government, such as those that provide food stamps or safety inspections of various kinds. …

“Mulvaney’s request for an accounting of the pending impacts of the shutdown startled some federal officials, who had been struggling to manage the fallout from the partial shuttering of a quarter of the federal government, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and others. Many of these officials have been trying to determine how to keep some agency functions operating at a time when a growing number of workers are refusing to show up because they aren’t getting paid. Now, in addition to dealing with the daily problems caused by the shutdown, Mulvaney is forcing them to comprehend how to run parts of their bureaucracies without money for an extended period of time. …

“The U.S. General Services Administration, an agency that manages many of the government’s leases and contracts, notified a number of departments that it probably needs new flexibility from Congress for it to make utility and lease payments in the coming days. Many federal agencies lease space in commercial buildings around the country, and if the GSA can’t make rental payments for these departments, the government could incur major fees and other costs. This could also have a big impact on the property owners, which rely on large government payments for their income.”

— White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett was asked on CNN yesterday whether the economy’s growth rate for the first quarter of the year could fall to 0 percent if the shutdown doesn’t end soon. “Yes,” he replied. “If it extended for the whole quarter, and given the fact that the first quarter [growth rate] tends to be low because of residual seasonality, then you could end up with a number very close to zero in the first quarter.” Damian Paletta calls this “the most dire forecast yet from a Trump administration official on the shutdown’s economic toll.”

— As on so many other issues, Trump and the neophytes he’s mostly surrounded himself with don’t appear to have thought through the second- and third-order consequences of their actions. On the eve of the shutdown in December, for example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave assurances that all affordable housing contracts expiring that month would be renewed and that landlords would be paid. “If anything, a HUD official said, the shutdown wouldn’t have a serious impact on the nation’s supply of subsidized housing for the poor until February,” Tracy Jan reports this morning. “But after the new year, HUD revealed that not only had the agency allowed 650 contracts to lapse in December — many having expired even before the shutdown began — but more cutbacks in government subsidies for low-income housing are also imminent as the government remains closed. Another 525 contracts are slated to expire by the end of next week, and 550 more will lapse in February. …

“With many landlords across the country no longer receiving government payments, HUD has instructed them to dip into their reserves to cover mortgages and other expenses — jeopardizing their budgets and the housing stability of more than 40,000 low-income households, two-thirds of whom are elderly or disabled. Uncertainty caused by the shutdown has landlords with HUD contracts postponing planned repairs to hurricane-battered roofs and other maintenance and discussing the potential of furloughing employees and delaying utility payments. … Some HUD staffers said the situation could have been better managed if political leaders had asked the right questions in time to prepare for an extended shutdown. …

“Beyond the lapsing contracts, HUD and the people who rely on it are being hit by the shutdown in numerous other ways. Public housing inspections have stalled in Los Angeles. Residents of subsidized housing in Chicago worry that faulty elevators, moldy air ducts, and broken washers and dryers won’t be fixed during the shutdown. In Maine, the Westbrook Housing Authority is delaying the release of long-awaited Section 8 vouchers, scheduled to be issued this week, until it is sure the federal government will pay. HUD is also under fire for not releasing a backlog of grants to homeless providers before the shutdown. The grants are now further delayed, even though the agency’s contingency plan characterizes the programs as critical enough to warrant bringing back furloughed staff to process the money. …

“In Largo, Fla., Jessica McBride, a single mother with a HUD housing voucher worth $775 a month, said her landlord would not allow her to renew her lease because the property no longer accepts Section 8 vouchers due to the shutdown. The landlord gave her until the end of January to move out. McBride, 33, has already begun packing, stuffing her clothes into trash bags, and is trying to save what she can from her $20,000-a-year marketing job to pay for a deposit on a new apartment. … She said if she can’t find a new apartment by the end of next week, she will have no choice but to stay put and go through the eviction process. Her landlord did not respond to a request for comment.”

“It’s like the real-life Hunger Games in America,” McBride told Tracy. “It’s the most vulnerable people that are being affected. The crisis isn’t at the border. It’s right here in America.”

— Both chambers of Congress passed a measure last week to temporarily extend a key federal welfare program after a bipartisan group of governors warned that red and blue states alike were on the verge of exhausting their funding because of the shutdown. The $16.5 billion measure, approved unanimously by the Senate, extends the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program through June 30.

— “Native American tribes in urban and rural areas are facing food shortages and a health care crisis because federal funds that stock pantries and provide medicine for diabetes and opioid addiction have been cut off,” Darryl Fears noted last week.

— The shutdown is also drawing domestic violence shelters to the brink, imperiling life-or-death services for women, Katie Zezima reported over the weekend.– But, but, but: It’s not just people who rely on the safety net to survive that are suffering because of scaled-back government services. A lot of what the feds do is background noise. Like breathing, regular people don’t think about it. Until they lose oxygen.

— The airports, where TSA agents are being forced to work without pay, have gotten a lot of attention in this regard. The associations that represent airline pilots, air traffic controllers and flight attendants issued a joint statement last night saying the shutdown has caused major safety issues: “In our risk-averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”

— The shutdown is also hobbling key parts of the financial system as companies ditch plans and scramble to deal with how to operate without the help of regulators, Renae Merle reports: “Already, it has slowed the market for initial public offerings. Wall Street was expecting tech giants including Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Pinterest to conduct IPOs this year, pushing the amount raised in public markets into record territory, but that now seems unlikely. By this time last year, eight companies had already gone public, said Kathleen Smith of Renaissance Capital, a manager of IPO products. ‘There is a growing backlog of companies waiting for comments from the SEC, but no one at the SEC is there to respond,’ she said.”

— “The shutdown is pushing some of the nation’s small, midsize and rural transit systems to an existential crisis,” Politico’s Tanya Snyder reports this morning. “The transit authority in Wilmington, N.C., an area still suffering financially from last year’s Hurricane Florence, is considering whether to shut down all bus and shuttle service at the end of February if its monthly payments from the Federal Transit Administration don’t resume. An agency serving most of Missouri started cutting service hours Tuesday. One transit nonprofit in Arizona may have to cease operating for good.”

— Consider this trio of dispatches from the Associated Press:

1. “Government shutdown delays, disrupts environmental studies,” by John Flesher and Tammy Webber: “The rainwater collection system is broken at the environmental research station on a remote, rocky Pacific island off the California coast. So is a crane used to hoist small boats in and out of the water. A two-year supply of diesel fuel for the power generators is almost gone. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel ordinarily would help with such problems. But they haven’t been around since the … shutdown began a month ago, forcing researchers with the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science to rely on volunteers to haul bottled water and 5-gallon jugs of diesel to the Farallon Islands National Refuge, about 30 miles from San Francisco. … ‘We’ve found some creative solutions, but things will get more strained the longer the shutdown is continued,’ said Pete Warzybok, a marine ecologist with Point Blue. …

“Scientists with universities, nonprofit organizations and private companies say their inability to collaborate with federal partners, gain access to federal lands, laboratories and secure federal funding is jeopardizing their work on a vast array of subjects, including invasive and endangered species and air and water quality. Researchers might miss court-ordered deadlines for reports involving endangered plants or animals. Warm-weather field studies that must be planned months in advance could be delayed or canceled. And studies that rely on strict monitoring or testing schedules could be compromised.”

2. “Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work,” Patrick Whittle reports from Maine. “A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown … includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.”

3. “Just two months after a wildfire wiped out Paradise, California, officials are gearing up for this year’s fire season and fear the shutdown could make it even more difficult than one of the worst in history,” per Gillian Flaccus. “The winter months are critical for wildfire managers who use the break from the flames to prepare for the next onslaught, but much of that effort has ground to a halt on U.S. land because employees are furloughed. Firefighting training courses are being canceled from Tennessee to Oregon, piles of dead trees are untended in federal forests and controlled burns to thin dry vegetation aren’t getting done. … State and local crews who need training classes are scrambling without federal instructors. Conservation groups that work with the U.S. Forest Service to plan wildfire-prevention projects on federal lands are treading water. Annual retreats where local, state and federal firefighting agencies strategize are being called off. The fire season starts as early as March in the southeastern United States, and by April, fires pop up in the Southwest. … It’s especially important with climate change making wildfire seasons longer, deadlier and more destructive.”– Here’s a small taste of assorted headlines from this week that have showcased stuff the federal government does without fanfare and under the radar:

  • The ABC affiliate in Pensacola, Fla.: “The local housing market is being impacted … Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) loans are still good to go, but USDA rural loans are on hold until further notice.”
  • Cleveland’s Fox affiliate: “Several Cleveland agencies fear prolonged shutdown will impact victims they serve.”
  • Wine Spectator: “Your Rosé May Be Late this Year. The battle in Washington is inflicting headaches and possible financial pain on wineries and importers.”
  • The Atlantic: “How the Government Shutdown Disrupted SpaceX’s Plans. The government shutdown shows just how much budget fights in Washington could derail Elon Musk’s rocket ambitions.”

— “The shutdown could soon block telescopes’ view of the heavens,” per Ben Guarino and Carolyn Johnson: “Mammoth telescopes and observatories that scout the sky for traces of supernova explosions and probe the universe’s 14-billion-year history are preparing to power down … A 13-story telescope perched high in the mountains of northern Chile and an antenna array in the New Mexico desert are just two observatory instruments that will be forced into standby mode if the government is still closed in mid-February. Hundreds of highly skilled workers will also be furloughed, with no guarantee of back pay, because they’re contractors … And the shutdown’s impact will almost certainly reverberate beyond their lives as research projects aimed at broadening human understanding of the cosmos are put on hold.”

— Finally, the National Gallery of Art’s signature spring show might be the next victim. This sounds less important, but culture is critical: “The exhibition of 16th-century Italian master Tintoretto — one of the most anticipated art shows of the year — is set to open March 10, along with two complementary exhibits on Venetian prints and drawings,” Peggy McGlone reports. “Preparations for the shows are weeks behind schedule.”

— A 53 percent majority of Americans now believe the shutdown is “very serious,” with 77 percent believing it’s at least somewhat serious, according to the latest numbers from a tracking poll by HuffPost-YouGov. Those numbers have steadily increased over the past month.

Even still, only about 1 in 4 Americans believe that they’ve been personally affected by the shutdown or expect to be affected in the future. The survey, which was in the field over the weekend, asked those respondents to explain how they’ve been affected. HuffPost’s Ariel Edwards-Levy rounded up the answers for a piece on the poll. Here are five responses that illustrate the ripple effects:

  • “Everyone is affected at this point,” said an Ohio woman who answered the survey. “People not being paid means they don’t buy, which means creditors and retailers don’t have income, which means they can’t pay their employees, and so on. Schools are not receiving needed funding from the [government]. Student loan payments aren’t going to my school.”
  • “My volunteer fire department’s DHS Grant to purchase new protective equipment isn’t being processed,” said a Colorado man.
  • “Had to cancel a trip to a national wildlife refuge to see migrating birds. They will be gone by next month. Now we have to wait until next year,” said a California woman.
  • “I work in a tax filing department of a payroll company, and certain services are unavailable from the government. It’s now much more difficult to meet the Jan 31 deadlines for filing,” said a Pennsylvania man.
  • “I live on different types of assistance,” said a Connecticut woman. “This will affect me and already has started to, with SNAP. I fear that I will not have enough aid, run out of food and suffer. I could lose my home due to not being able to pay for my rent. This is SCARY. The thought of losing my medical care, as a disabled woman needing surgery soon, has caused me trauma from living in fear.”

— Adding insult to injury: The 800,000 federal employees affected by the shutdown were warned yesterday that they must pay their dental and vision premiums beginning this week or they could lose their coverage. “The workers are not at risk of losing their health insurance benefits, which will stay in effect through the duration of the shutdown — and for as long as a year — even if they are not receiving a paycheck, with their accumulated premiums deducted from their pay once their agency reopens,” Lisa Rein and Eric Yoder report. “However, that protection does not extend to vision and dental insurance, and starting with their second missed paycheck at the end of this week, employees will be billed directly for premiums for dental and vision coverage. If the shutdown continues for another two weeks into a third missed pay period, the company that provides long-term care insurance to federal workers also will start billing them directly.”

— After a day of scathing back-and-forth between Trump and Nancy Pelosi, the president announced he will indefinitely postpone his State of the Union address until after the shutdown ends. Seung Min Kim and Felicia Sonmez report: “Earlier Wednesday, Trump tried to call Pelosi’s bluff, saying he planned to honor the invitation she had extended earlier this month … Not delivering his speech in the House chamber, Trump wrote to her, would be ‘very sad.’ But later Wednesday, Pelosi officially called off the address in the House chamber, asking instead for a new, ‘mutually agreeable’ date once the government has reopened. Trump, faced with that reality, said he would be doing ‘something in the alternative.’ In a tweet late Wednesday night, Trump appeared to walk back on his threats, saying it was Pelosi’s ‘prerogative’ to suggest a later date due to the shutdown. … Pelosi responded with a tweet urging Trump to support legislation passed by the House and set for a vote in the Senate on Thursday to reopen the government without funding for a border wall.”

— Meanwhile, the Senate will make its first formal attempt to resolve the shutdown by holding votes today on dueling bills from Trump and the Democrats — both of which are likely to fail. Sean Sullivan reports: “The votes will test the abilities of [Mitch] McConnell and [Chuck] Schumer to unify their sides, and likely, to negotiate with each other afterward. In other dramatic fiscal showdowns over the past decade, the Senate has almost always been the chamber that found the bipartisan solution as the House hit roadblocks, from the Wall Street bailout of 2008 to reopening of government after the 2013 shutdown. But those were crises that predated [Trump’s] mercurial presidency. In effect, the defeat of both measures would demonstrate in the most concrete manner yet that what both sides have been pushing for is not possible in the Senate, and that some new compromise must be forged to pass the chamber.”

— Notable: Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is facing a difficult reelection fight in 2020 and chaired the Senate GOP campaign arm in 2018, announced he will support the Democratic bill to reopen the government without any border security commitments. Gardner’s spokesman told the Denver Post he would also vote for Trump’s bill to reopen the government, which includes immigration measures that Democrats reject.

— The annual retreat for congressional Republicans has been canceled. It was scheduled from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The Congressional Institute said it will be rescheduled for some time later this year.

— House Democratic leaders appear to be softening their negotiating position, at least somewhat, as they consider offering Trump more money for border security but not for his wall. Erica Werner, Damian Paletta, Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis report: “Democrats prepared to respond to Trump’s condition for reopening the government — $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall — with a new border security proposal that would exceed previous commitments. The party is even considering matching the $5.7 billion request, not for a wall but for other measures such as immigration judges and drones. The Democrats would consider such legislation only after the government is reopened.”

— Thirty House Democrats who could be vulnerable in 2020 signed an open letter urging Pelosi to hold a vote on border security if it would guarantee an end to the shutdown. Jenna Portnoy reports: Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who organized the letter and “represents a military-heavy district including Virginia Beach, said she would be open to a menu of border security options, including a ‘physical barrier’ of some type.”

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