HARPERS FERRY — Ken and Pat Wendler of Gardiner, N.Y., made their first trip to West Virginia to visit the national park here late last week. They found the door of the park buildings closed and all of the exhibits off limits.
[cleeng_content id="816167440" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]“This is politics as usual,” Ken Wendler said. “These politicians have no concern for the American public.”
But the merchants in Harpers Ferry are taking steps to minimize the effects of the first federal government shutdown in 17 years as it drags into its second week. They have installed portable restrooms to replace the locked national park facilities and are acting as ad-hoc tour guides in the absence of park rangers.
Susan Benjamin, owner of Harpers Ferry candy store Cool Confectionaries, said they were determined to do well in spite of the shutdown.
“We don’t have a ton of customers yet, but it’s building. We’re contacting the media. We’re getting the word out,” she said. “We are finding the holes, and we are filling them ourselves.”
“Many of the merchants will be walking around town to help people out and make information available about where people can park,” she added. “We’ll just be available to help people as they need it.”
It’s good business for the shopkeepers to step in, says Gary DeBrueler, president of the Harpers Ferry Merchant Association.
“They count on us to feed all of the visitors, because they don’t have any restaurants. And we count on them to bring them down to us, because their parking lot is way down the hill,” DeBrueler said. “It’s pretty slow so far. When people say, ‘Well, I’m going to Harpers Ferry National Park,’ but then they know the national park is closed, a lot of times they just won’t come.”
It’s not only tourists and area business owners who are affected by the closure. The shutdown has so far caused the furloughing of about 800,000 federal employees, some of whom live in Jefferson County.
Katherine Austin, an attorney with the Office of the Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service, found out Tuesday morning that she would be furloughed until Congress agrees to fund the government. Each day a continuing resolution is passed, she is going without pay, pay she thinks she is unlikely to get later.
“I really doubt that we’ll get it later,” she said. “It would be up to Congress to pay federal employees, and given their attitude toward federal employees for the last three or four years, I really doubt it.”
The House unanimously passed a bill that would retroactively pay federal employees for furlough time, and President Barak Obama has previously signaled that he would sign it, according to reports. The bill appears to have stalled in the Senate, however, the AP reported Monday night.
Austin said her office, which provides ethical and legal advice to current and former IRS employees, has already been slashed in half over the last few years.
“We’ve been going through the constant, up-to-the-brink shutdowns, and many times those have provisions in them that affect federal employees,” she said. “Just in my office alone we used to have 12 attorneys and a paralegal. Now we have five attorneys, and no paralegal or full-time administrative assistant.”
Her office, which is almost entirely closed, oversees claims processing, labor issues, labor disputes, arbitration and contract review. They also oversee the investment reports of IRS officials required by the STOCK Act, looking for conflicts of interest. Nearly all of these activities, she said, have come to a standstill and will remain so until the federal government is restarted.
Austin said the recurrent threat of a shutdown has become a constant, disruptive force in the lives of federal workers.
“Right now it is a constant, yearly threat,” she said. “Every September, you’re wondering.”
That instability, she said, is causing skilled, experienced employees to leave their jobs at an increasing rate.
“Taking early retirement is looking to be a better option. At least then you would have some stability,” she said. “It’s much more common to see little notices about so-and-so’s retirement party. They seem a lot more frequent. A lot more long-time people are leaving because it really just doesn’t pay to stay there.”
“You get a lot of comments like, ‘We’re better off without a government,’” she said. “I feel pretty much abandoned.”
Veterans’ medical care
Bill Arnicar, communications officer with the American Legion, said his greatest worry is about veterans’ medical benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced last week that, after reducing a well publicized backlog of medical claims by 30 percent, it projects it will begin building once again.
“What we’re really concerned about right now is that there is going to be an increase in the backlog [at the VA,]” Arnicar said. “Some of these people have been waiting for up to a year anyway. This time is going to be particularly painful for them.”
Arnicar said delayed medical care constitutes a breach of trust with the nation’s veterans.
“There was a promise that was made by our country to serve our veterans,” he said. “We find ourselves in a place where some of those problems will not be kept as well as they should be.”
Based on communications with the VA, Arnicar said, it appears that until Congress re-funds the government, there will be no decisions made on veterans health care claims or appeals, a freeze on the recruitment and hiring of veteran job applicants, and a freeze on vocational education and rehabilitation.
“Even interment at their cemetery will be unfunded,” he said.
Arnicar said veterans were also angry about shuttered war memorials in the nation’s capitol.
“One thing that really has a lot of folks miffed is the monument shutdown in D.C. It is completely unnecessary,” he said. “A lot of veterans are taking a very negative view of that.”
Military education benefits
Jim Sweizer, vice president of military relations with American Public University System, said that the shutdown means that active duty students of American Military University may be unable to pay for classes, which are set to begin on Monday.
“We’re watching for Congress to pass a continuing resolution to get the money flowing again,” he said, “because without that our students who depend on tuition assistance are kind of left in limbo. So that’s our major concern right now. We hope this impasse will go away so the services will be able to process tuition requests.”
The tuition assistance program is offered by all branches of the military to help subsidize education for active duty service members.
“We allow them to register months in advance, so many of them have been registered for our October classes for quite some time and have had their tuition assistance requests in the various services’ portals for quite some time,” Sweizer said. “The services are not authorized to extend funding into the next fiscal year without an appropriation from Congress, and that’s what has happened now.”
Failure to pass a stop-gap funding measure to restart the federal government will mean that service members will not receive any assistance “which then will cause our students to make a decision next week as to whether to withdraw from class or seek alternative sources of funding,” he said.
Not only active duty military will be affected, Sweizer added. “The veterans are impacted as well. We are hearing that there will be delays in processing GI Bill benefits.”
On the bright side, Sweizer said, APUS’s classes are offered monthly, so those who have to drop classes should be able to enroll in November.
“Any time we have a decline in enrollment, it is going to hurt the company’s bottom line, but we anticipate that the students that are impacted by this in October will come back in November,” he said.
APUS had previously seen disruptions to the tuition assistance program — a consequence of budget sequestration — hit their profits. But Brian Muys, vice president for public relations, said that the impact will be less severe this time around.
“The sequester … was much further reaching in terms of its implications,” he said. “This is more easily remedied.”
Nonetheless, he hopes the budget standoff concludes quickly.
“We’re very optimistic about a successful resolution of these issues,” he said. “The last thing any of us want … is for students who are working hard to advance themselves to be victimized.”
|The good news is the deficit is shrinking
One fact ignored in the midst of the rapt attention given to the political brinkmanship surrounding the federal government shutdown: the federal budget deficit has been declining precipitously.
The Congressional Budget Office reported in May that it project’s this year’s budget deficit to be around 4 percent of the nation’s GDP, less than half the 10 percent it stood at in 2009. Last month, it projected that the deficit would fall to only 2 percent of GDP by 2015.
In the May the CBO cut its projection of the 2013 deficit by more than $200 billion, saying that the improvement in the fiscal outlook came “mostly as a result of higher-than-expected revenues and an increase in payments to the Treasury by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
On the other hand, budget sequestration is projected to cut spending by only $85 billion relative to spending without the sequester for 2013, according to a February CBO report.
In last month’s report, the CBO projected that the total federal debt as a percentage of GDP will begin shrinking next year, continuing to decline until 2018, without any changes to taxation or spending policies.
In the longer term, however, the CBO warns that rising healthcare costs, an aging population, normalizing interest rates and the expansion of healthcare subsidies would cause the debt to begin growing again relative to GDP by 2023, a situation that it warns is ultimately unsustainable.
September’s CBO report argues that policy makers face a difficult double-bind.
On one hand, improving the long-term budget picture through cutting government spending or raising taxes now will damage the economy, reducing economic growth and raising unemployment, it predicts. It states that those effects will be particularly pronounced now since the Federal Reserve will be unable to cut interest rates to offset the economic damage of contractionary fiscal policy, since those rates are already near zero.
On the other hand, the CBO points out, putting off spending cuts or revenue increases will mean that bigger cuts will have to be made later, if the budget is to be put on a sustainable path. It also warns that a sustained high level of government borrowing is likely to reduce business investment, reducing the future rate of economic growth.
— Bryan Clark