Government Shutdown?
The longest government shutdown in history has ended, or has it?

illustration by Josh Gates

On Jan. 25 2019, the federal government emerged from the longest shutdown in United States history after 35 days of political gridlock on the Hill. President Donald Trump shut down the government because Democrats, who won the House majority, refused to to approve of a spending bill that includes $5.7 billion for a wall along the southern border.

“How ludicrous it is that this government is shut down over a promise that the President of the United States couldn’t keep?”Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, implored on day 35. “This idea that he was going to build a medieval wall across the southern border of Texas, take it from farmers and ranchers that were there, and have the Mexicans pay for it, isn’t true. That’s why we’re here!”

House Democrats passed several bills to fund and reopen shutdown agencies, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continually refused to bring any of them to the Senate floor for a vote.

Democrats rejected a “compromise” offered by Trump that included wall funding in exchange for temporarily protecting the status of certain immigrant groups, such as DACA recipients and those fleeing natural disasters or civil unrest.

The country is still reeling, but we’re not out of the weeds yet. On Feb. 15th, Trump agreed to open the government for three weeks while both parties continue to negotiate. The Congressional Budget Office said that the shutdown cost the economy $3 billion it will never get back.

Let’s take a look at this bureaucratic mess.

Almost 10,000 federal workers in Oregon have been affected.
According to the Oregon Employment Department, the total number of federal employees in Oregon is around 28,000, two-thirds of whom work in agencies that had funding and weren’t directly affected by the shutdown (i.e. the U.S. Postal Service, Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Defense, and Department of Labor). Around 9,600 federal workers in Oregon have been affected by the shutdown, given their agencies didn’t have funding approved. Some of these workers were furloughed. Some agencies used left over funding to cover operations for a short time.

A salary furlough is a period of time during which a worker doesn’t go to work and doesn’t earn wage. The employee is still considered employed and therefore retains benefits. Furloughed workers can apply for unemployment benefits; federal workers without pay cannot.

Federal contractors worked without pay and don’t get back pay. They will be considered unemployed in the January jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On Jan. 17, OPB reported more than 2,700 federal workers living in Oregon had filed for unemployment since the shutdown began (as opposed to last year by this time: 561 federal workers had filed for unemployment). Many were resorting to the Oregon Food Bank and community fund raised resources.  

Shutdown by association
KGW8 interviewed a cafe worker who was hit hard by the shutdown. Her coffeeshop, Celyn’s Espresso Cafe in a federal building in downtown Portland, depends on business from federal workers. She typically serves 100–200 people a day. During the shutdown, it was down to 30. She had to cut hours for the shop and her only employee. “I have been praying a lot,” she told KGW8 holding back tears. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“The shutdown breaks the treat and trust obligations to tribal governments”
On Jan. 23, the ACLU reported the shutdown was disproportionately hurting Native Americans. On Jan. 10, the National Congress of American Indians—the representative tribal organization in the country—wrote President Trump and congressional leaders a letter urging them to end the shutdown. “The shutdown breaks the treaty and trust obligations to tribal governments.” After centuries of oppression, many tribal members are poor (at least ¼ of Native Americans live in poverty, the highest poverty rate of any racial group in the U.S.) and many tribes rely on federal programs for basic services. Unemployment is over 40 percent on many reservations. “Ironically, the Americans most affected by immigration over the last 500 years continue to be the most heavily impacted by the shuttering of multiple federal agencies that are unrelated to securing the homeland.” They lament widespread impacts from destabilized programs in public safety, social services, education and health care. Because of the shutdown, tribal officials say some programs are on the brink of collapse. Other programs were surviving on tribal reserve funds.

Indian Health Service (IHS)
IHS is a federally administered program that gives health care to about 2.2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives. It is also run by HHS, but gets money through the Department of Interior. Advocates say that the limitations imposed by the shutdown violated the treaties signed with exchange for native land. 60 percent of IHS employees (9,000) had to work without pay to keep IHS-run clinics open for direct patient care. “We’re the most underserved population for health care, and that’s after promises that has long ago dismissed or forgotten,” William Lyall, the Chairman of the of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe told KATU2 news during the shutdown. He added that it had been the longest they’d had to rely on their reserves. Grants that support tribal health programs, like those that manage preventative health clinics, were suspended. Some preventative health facilities overseen by IHS were on the brink of indefinite closure.

National Park Service (NPS)
Crater Lake and Mt. Rainier are two nearby national parks that closed their facilities because of the shutdown. No one collected trash, and Search and Rescue services were on hold. Luckily, no one needed rescuing.

Crater Lake National Park closed its roads to vehicles because, how they put it: “due to conditions caused by the impact of human waste buildup on the park’s water system.” Also, no one plowed the snow on its roads, in a place where average annual snowfall is 43 feet. It took them a couple of days to reopen.

Down in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park’s number of rangers was down from a hundred to just eight. Garbage and toilets also overflowed, but worse yet, the small crew of workers couldn’t prevent illegal off-roading and tree-slaying. A rash of vandals chopped down some Joshua trees. The peculiar desert trees grow 2-3 inches a year, take half a century to mature, and live around 150 years.

illustration by Jake Johnson

Science: When you’re considered expendable
The United States government employs scientists and funds research. But it’s scientists are furloughed and many research programs halted, jeopardizing the studies that require constant data sets. The national president of the American Federation of Government Employees told Eos that the shutdown “basically has shut down science, but I guess if you’re a president who doesn’t believe in science, you would like to shut science down.”

Access to federal websites was limited. Students who are working on research projects, theses or dissertations couldn’t access scientific datasets on federal websites; this also hinders scientific research and could delay some graduations.

A local student, who prefers to remain anonymous citing “professionalism” concerns, is still waiting to see the NASA scholarship he was awarded. “I had to pick up two jobs to pay for school because I was gonna get the scholarship and I didn’t get the scholarship. I mean, I have it, but it’s not—Government owes me money right now.” He was expecting to see the funds by the beginning of Winter term. “I worked it out, but I’m not going to get As in classes because I gotta work. That stresses me out.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture
The USDA is responsible for managing agencies involved in food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition.

Farm loans (FSA)
The FSA had to call 2,500 workers back to work without pay so that it could open its offices to manage loans and emergency assistance programs offered to farmers. While it was closed, some farmers considered resorting to high-rate bank loans.

National Forests (USFS)
The USFS and the Bureau of Land Management manage public land in national forests and grasslands, forestry research and development and wildfire management. In Oregon, national forests cover a whopping 16 million acres, about 25 percent of the state.  USFS and BLM jobs account for 45 percent of the federal jobs that didn’t have funding thanks to the shutdown.

Garbage was piling up uncollected in national forests, too. Governor Kate Brown’s husband took matters into his own hands. He took garbage from overflowing trash cans at Mt. Hood National Forest to the dump and sent the 28 dollar bill to the president as reported by the Willamette Week.

Wildfire season is around the corner!
PBS reported that the government shutdown was stalling important preparation for wildfire season. Wildland firefighting is a collaborative effort, and critical planning for wildfire season usually takes place in the winter, during a narrow window when temperature and humidity conditions are right. Because of the shutdown, some critical steps weren’t happening. Local, state and federal firefighting agencies usually meet to strategize but annual retreats were cancelled. USFS and conservation groups weren’t meeting to plan wildfire-prevention projects. Federal instructors couldn’t train local and state crews and certification classes were getting canceled. Wildfire mitigation measures, like removing dead tree piles and conducting controlled burns to thin out dry vegetation, were on hold too. (Trump blamed the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California’s history on poor forest management and unraked forest debris, when in fact human-caused global warming is drying forests out and making them more susceptible to huge fires.)

Food and Drug Administration
The FDA is technically within the Human Health Services, but gets a lot of funding for food safety operations through the Department of Agriculture. 40 percent of its workers were furloughed. The FDA was going to run out of funding in February.

photo illustration by Jon Bordas

Food Stamps: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Oregonians on food stamps got a letter in mid-January: “You are getting this letter because you get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits every month,” it reads. “You will be getting your February food benefits early. The federal government shutdown caused the change,” It concludes,  “We will let you know if anything changes with March food benefits.”

40 million Americans get food stamps. There are 615,405 Oregonians—350,000 households—who rely on federal food stamp benefits through the SNAP. Oregon secured enough funds to get through February, and enough for a separate food program that serves 89,000 women, children, and infants to get through March a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority told The Oregonian.

Because of the shutdown, the USDA asked states to give out February benefits early, so benefits were distributed to Oregonians two weeks early.

Transportation Security Administration
The Oregonian wrote about over 700 air traffic controllers and security officers “being held hostage” at Portland International Airport. The airport workers classified as “essential” can’t strike and have to work through the shutdown without pay. The Oregonian reported 380 unionized TSA workers were directed “to local food pantries or grief counseling services as needed.” A month into the shutdown, TIME magazine reported that one in 10 TSA workers were calling in sick. TSA agents earn an average of $35,000 a year. Many say they can’t afford to work without pay— some were selling plasma to make ends meet. On day 28 of unpaid work, TSA agents rallied outside of Portland International Airport, in the airport’s “free speech area outside the terminals.”

On Jan. 23 the unions that represent more than 130,000 U.S. air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants issued a dire statement: “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.” Because of the shutdown, the FAA can’t hire or train people. The system is strained given a staffing shortage that predates the shutdown. Plus, 20 percent of air traffic controllers are eligible for retirement, which would cripple the system. The safety of airspaces is “deteriorating by the day” they warn.

U.S. Coast Guard
Jan. 15 was the first time in U.S. history that members of armed forces were not paid because of lapses in funding. “Shipmates, thank you for continuing to stay on the watch.” On Jan. 24, day 34 of the shutdown, Commandment of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Jason Vanderhaden, released a video update with some sobering words about the shutdown. “We’re five-plus weeks into the anxiety and stress of this government lapse in your none pay. You, as members of the armed forces, should not be expected to shoulder this burden.” While the community has been stepping up support, Schultz stated that “Ultimately, I find it unacceptable that U.S. Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day to day life as service members.” Affected Coast Guard employees could access to the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, an independent nonprofit charity for people assisting the Coast Guard family (in recent years, often for hurricane relief). Trump points to drug trafficking to justify a wall, but according to U.S. authorities, the Coast Guard seizes three times more drugs transported by sea than by land.

Border Patrol
On Jan. 16, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials held a press briefing, calling a barrier “the backbone of the system” that prevents illegal entry, adding that a barrier is “not as effective without technology or without access roads.” Border patrol agents are among the lowest paid in federal law enforcement. The agency has difficulty with staffing and turnover.

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
This federal agency approves labels before booze businesses can sell new products. Now there’s a big backlog of brews up for label approval. Local winemakers and brewers are concerned about deadlines for distributors, and they don’t want to miss out on peak sales season.

The Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA is an independent agency that is not a cabinet department, but it also ran out of funding during the shutdown. On day 25, there were about 800 EPA employees working without pay, including those who work on Superfund sites—polluted locations that need long-term clean up. The agency is responsible for inspecting drinking water and regulating pesticides, but these services were limited during the shutdown. Newsy interviewed Felicia Chase, an EPA environmental scientist. She was feeling the financial squeeze of the shutdown but voiced concern for government oversight causing a public health crisis like the one in Flint, Michigan. Chase oversees companies installing injection wells for deep oil and gas drilling. “What I do is ensure that the drinking water in these communities… where these underground disposal wells are, are following the regulations and are not contaminating people’s drinking water source.” Her job was determined non-essential, so she was one of the 13,000+ furloughed EPA workers.

But, hey, New Seasons is offering 15 percent off to unpaid federal workers with federal ID. The Oregon Zoo offered free admission and Movie Madness offered free rentals to federal workers affected by the shutdown. However, these benefits probably don’t make up for the toll the shutdown has taken on the country and its federal workers’ lives. Even after the government reopened, workers are skeptical that the government might not remain open after the three week window passes.

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