Senior Fellow and Senior Counselor
House Republicans unveiled a plan yesterday to raise (or suspend) the debt ceiling for six weeks but leave the government shutdown in place, raising the specter that the shutdown could continue for weeks — maybe all the way until November 22, the GOP’s proposed new debt limit deadline. There is growing support among policymakers on both sides of the aisle to reopen the government — and here’s why ending the shutdown sooner rather than later is so vital.
Day by day, the real-world problems that the shutdown causes will grow, and more and more of the “make do” steps that federal agencies and states have used to limit the damage will run out.
A shutdown into November could have serious consequences for low-income Americans. Most or all states would run out of WIC funding, which provides nutrition assistance for nearly 9 million pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children. Head Start grantees serving 86,000 children in 41 states are scheduled to receive renewal funding at the start of November; without it, many may have to close. Home energy assistance— including aid that’s used to pay for once-a-season heating oil deliveries in some states — will be delayed even as the weather turns cold.
States also may have to cut off basic cash assistance for the very poorest families because federal funding through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for 2014 is not available. Arizona nearly cut off aid to several thousand families in October before the governor decided to ensure that the state would provide the assistance. She warned, however, that the state could not pay the federal government’s bills for long and that both TANF benefits and child care assistance for working families could end in November if the shutdown continues.
The shutdown, of course, doesn’t just affect low-income people. Veterans with service-related disabilities will not receive disability benefits in November if the funding isn’t there. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has stopped routine workplace inspections, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stopped many of its activities to ensure food safety, such as inspecting restaurants and monitoring the quality of imported foods. Senior citizen centers are waiting for funding for Meals on Wheels and other programs — the longer that the shutdown continues, the more centers will face shortfalls. National parks remain closed — and local businesses that depend on tourism related to those parks are suffering. The federal courts have announced that they will operate through October 17 but likely close after that if funding has not been approved. The Supreme Court also has indicated that it may have to close after October 18.
The impact on states will worsen over time, even as they become less able to fill the funding gap that the shutdown created. Already, Washington State has furloughed or reduced the hours of half of all staff in the Employment Security Department, the agency that, among other things, administers the unemployment insurance (UI) program. While funding for UI benefits is unaffected, the shutdown has left states without the funds to administer UI. Due to the workforce reductions, the agency is no longer investigating fraud, helping veterans find jobs, and auditing employer tax payments, among other things. Also, Michigan warns that it may have to furlough thousands of workers if the shutdown isn’t resolved by November.
The economic impacts will grow as well. While furloughed federal workers will likely receive back pay when the shutdown ends, many workers in private businesses and other organizations who are laid off or see their hours reduced because of the shutdown likely won’t.
Even public services that the federal government has deemed “essential” and have continued can only operate without funding for a limited time. Federal workers whose jobs are essential to protecting life and property — federal prison staff, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) staff responding to the recent salmonella outbreak, air traffic controllers, customs and border patrol agents, and so on — remain on the job, though they will not be paid until the shutdown ends. But the agencies providing these essential services have non-personnel costs they need to cover to continue operating effectively. The clinical center at the National Institutes of Health will need to buy drugs and other supplies. Customs and Border Patrol agents will need their vehicles repaired and gas to keep them running. Federal prisons have to buy food for prisoners. CDC and FDA staff who respond to emergencies have to travel to those sites and run tests. Because these agencies don’t have 2014 funding, they can’t pay these or other bills during the shutdown.
For now, companies and contractors are providing these services and assuming they will be paid soon. But that’s not sustainable for an extended time. Nor is it fair to federal workers and businesses to ask them to finance essential services until Congress gets around to reopening the government.