By BRYAN CLARK
CHARLES TOWN – As the third day of the first federal government shutdown in 17 years comes to a close, a broad spectrum of Jefferson County’s residents and businesses are feeling the negative effects of congressional gridlock. The shutdown is already harming active duty military service members, veterans, federal workers and students at American Military University.
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 refunds 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. “If a miracle happens and a continuing resolution tonight or tomorrow, the services, starting Monday, will all promptly start processing those requests.”
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.”
Harpers Ferry businesses
“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,” said. Gary DeBrueler, president of the Harpers Ferry Merchant Association. “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.”
In Harpers Ferry, Matt and Lisa Baugher, of Lebanon, Mo., said the government shutdown has thrown cold water over their summer vacation. Just returned from Washington D.C. to pick up daughter Rebecca who had been serving on a medical ship off the coast of Cambodia, the Baughers intended to visit the monuments and memorials of the nation’s capital before heading west to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the national battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.
On Thursday, three days into the shutdown, the Baughers and their children, Rebecca, Jacob and James stopped along Potomac Street to commiserate with Ken and Pat Wendler of Gardiner, N.Y.
Matt Baugher said he was struck by the scene of veterans, some in wheelchairs defying the barricades placed around the World War II Memorial.
“These guys stormed the beaches at Normandy,” said Matt Baugher, who is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. “Just try to keep them out.”
Lisa Baugher said she was disappointed that the trip — their first to the area, which they’d been planning for more than a month — was being waylaid by politicians’ inability to reach a buget agreement.
Pat Wendler agreed. She said this was her first visit to Harpers Ferry and was immediately struck by its beauty and history. She said she was deeply disappointed that she couldn’t get into any of the buildings.
“This is politics as usual,” said Ken Wendler. “These politicians have no concern for the American public. From now on, come November, my motto is going to be: ‘if you’re in, you’re out.’”
But the merchants in Harpers Ferry are taking steps to minimize the impact of the shutdown. 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, president 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.”
“We are open,” she said defiantly. “We are looking forward to a really great weekend.”
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.”
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.”
— Robert Snyder contributed to this report.