Few sacred cows protected in shutdown

Although many urgent social services are left intact for now, many worry about the long-term impact on vulnerable

A U.S. park police officer stands guard in front of the closed Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. following the government shutdown.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The legal memos dictating the terms of the government shutdown lay it out all too clearly: If a federal function or employee doesn’t directly serve to protect life, property or national security, it gets the ax until the current budget quagmire is solved.

Americans would be forgiven for seeing the government’s priorities written into what gets shielded. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education — frequent punching bags for conservatives — have all but closed, furloughing more than 90 percent of their employees, as well as various regulatory functions in other departments, including food and work inspections. Meanwhile, nearly all the Department of Homeland Security, including drug enforcement agents, and half of the Department of Defense, including military recruiters, are continuing with their jobs.

But as the shutdown enters its third full day, it seems clear that for once, there are few sacred cows in this battle.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before lawmakers Wednesday afternoon to bemoan that 70 percent of intelligence staff had been furloughed and warn about the effects on national security. Administrators of the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC), which provides low-income mothers with vouchers for things like baby formula, fretted about how long they could last without appropriations. The National Institutes of Health, already reeling from sequestration cuts, was forced to furlough three quarters of employees and turn away cancer patients, including children, from clinical trials, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

"There is clearly some wiggle room for the decision-makers in the categorization of functions as essential or nonessential. This is a decision normally driven by the agency, not from the Congress," said Sally Katzen, a former deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton administration. "All government agencies and all government programs feel the pain, and no one can exempt favorite projects or favorite people." 

That’s led to some awkward optics as members of Congress face the ire of their constituents. While almost the entire staff of the Veteran’s Administration has been kept on board and their benefits preserved, some veterans visiting D.C. this week were livid that the national parks were closed and broke down barricades in front of the war memorials to get in. A handful of GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Rep. Steve King R-Iowa., showed up to the lend their support, despite the fact that they effectively voted for the shutdown in rejecting a clean spending bill.

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House Republicans have also maneuvered to prevent the most garish impacts of the shutdown by proposing smaller spending bills that would restore certain funds, including those for the national parks and for NIH, but the White House quickly issued a veto threat, demanding yet again a no-strings-attached bill that would fund the government for six weeks.

Nick Schwellenbach, senior fiscal policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government transparency, said even if not by design, certain political sensitivities can be seen in what has remained open.

"People are afraid of hurting veterans. Impoverished mothers and children don’t have as much of a megaphone,” he said. “You only see short-term thinking with these cuts, and I would include the shutdown in this category, with people saying ‘Well, ok it’s not catastrophic now.’ And that’s the wrong bar to use when we judge cuts.”

Schwellenbach added that many worry that conservatives intent on budget-cutting might later use the contingency plans drawn up the agencies as roadmaps for what government employees and services to keep and cut.

For now, many urgent social programs for vulnerable populations have been left intact — including homelessness programs operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the processing of Pell Grants for low-income students by the Department of Education and free and reduced school lunches, funding of which comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and will remain until the end of the month.

Others have been less lucky: Some Head Start programs, which provide early-childhood education to low-income families and were supposed to receive their funding at the beginning of the month, have already had to close. There is concern too about how beneficiaries of other government programs could be harmed if the shutdown doesn’t end soon and are indefinitely served by skeleton crews of workers.

“We are one of the hardest hit agencies, and we help the poorest of the poor,” said Eddie Eitches, a HUD employee and union representative, whose agency has almost entirely been closed. “Are we lesser federal employees than military people?”

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