From Wall Street to White Sands National Monument, concern over a looming shutdown of the federal government has consumed investors, voters, tourists… and journalists over the last few days.
Lost in the discussion in the dispute over Obamacare is that one effect of the shutdown struck the Beltway and federal buildings across the country well before Monday at midnight: government workers not doing the work they were hired to do.
That’s because preparation for the shutdown has been consuming a significant portion of their time at work in recent weeks, say federal employees.
“We’ve had to figure out who’d be exempt and who’d have to show up, there are safety and security issues, because we deal with a lot of sensitive material, and the main thing is a gimmick where we move funds around” so the most important work can continue beyond the shutdown, said a Department of Energy employee who works on budget issues.
She declined to identify herself because she lacks authorization to speak to the news media.
Ordinarily, her job consists of preparing budgets for the department’s chief financial officer, writing papers to justify those budgets, and writing briefing papers for Capitol Hill staff and members of Congress. During the last several workdays, though, her office has been engaged in “de-obligating” certain funds so they can pay salaries and benefits and keep working a few more days.
“There’s quite a few steps involved, so it pulls in a lot of people” even high up in the department, she said. “It’s a huge workload. And ours is not the only program doing this; many programs have to, in every department. It takes away from what you should be doing, so it's really inefficient.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives refused, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been unable to cajole them, to pass a "continuing resolution" that would fund the government beyond September 30 without in some way sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. Passage of such a law is necessary because Congress has been unable to agree on an omnibus spending bill since 2009. Some departments have received new appropriations between continuing resolutions since then, others have not.
If the roughly 800,000 furloughed federal workers (out of 2 million) can't collect paychecks for one week, it will shave an estimated 0.2 percent from GDP growth in the fourth quarter, according to estimates.
Early last week, the House voted to fund the government at previous earlier levels, but to strip whatever funds from the rollout of the Affordable Care Act that they could. The Senate rejected that bill. On Sunday, the House voted to fund the government but delay implementation of health care reform. The Senate sent that bill back to the house, too.
“The American people don’t want a government shutdown, and they don’t want Obamacare,” Speaker Boehner said last week. The President by whose name the law is known was elected by a majority of voters last year. In the same election, Democratic candidates for Congress received more than one million more votes than Republican candidates, not one of which voted for the Affordable Care Act. In June, the Republican-majority Supreme Court rejected legal challenges to the law.
Online exchanges for people who have been denied affordable health insurance opened Tuesday, despite Republicans' efforts.
Other work delayed and disrupted by the threat of shutdown included scientific research funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“Progress in medical innovation is threatened by the uncertainty,” said Carrie D. Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research. “NIH will have to spend a lot of time shutting down research.”
She pointed to experiments involving plants, animals or other living cells as examples of the type of research that can’t be conducted without ongoing supervision. That means vital treatments will be delayed.
“Medical research takes a long time, but if you’re the patient on the other end of that pipeline, every day counts,” said Wolinetz, a reproductive biologist. Economic activity supporting 432,000 jobs results from work at the NIH, according to Wolinetz’s organization, which represents research institutions and private industry.
Even when the current impasse is resolved, it will only fund the government for another six weeks. The ongoing funding by continuing resolution, rather than a proper appropriations bill or federal budget, creates its own problems, the Dept. of Energy budget office employee said.
“It’s really crisis management, it’s not planning.”