State eyes up federal closure

As a deadlocked Congress approaches a Monday-night deadline to avoid a government shutdown, local politicians and agencies are weighing the wide-ranging effects a federal closure could have across Pennsylvania.

The possible shutdown, set for the Tuesday opening of the fiscal year, would represent the culmination of budget battles and disputes over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. A shutdown could quickly hit military personnel, veterans, small business owners and unemployment beneficiaries, among others, experts have warned.

“I think the consequences of a shutdown are readily apparent,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “We know this … will hurt the nation’s economy, will counter our efforts to keep the economy growing.”

The shutdown threat stems from House Republicans’ demand that federal funding be tied to defunding Obamacare, the health care program set to take effect next week. The Senate is expected to remove the defunding element, however, leading to a showdown that could halt government funding entirely.

If that happens, a range of federal programs would be suspended or slowed almost immediately, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last month. While shutdown effects are unpredictable, Congress members have cited similar closures in the 1990s as examples.

First, the report stated, is a “shutdown furlough” of hundreds of thousands of federal employees. While employees in the 1990s later received back pay for the time they missed, there is no legal requirement that they be paid, the study noted.

National parks would likely close, including facilities at the historic Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County. Regional parks director Jeff Reinbold declined to comment on his expectations for a shutdown.

Social Security checks would continue to be mailed, but new applications wouldn’t be processed, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said in a checklist of likely effects. The Postal Service would continue operations, as it doesn’t rely on the federal budget.

A shutdown would hit the military and federal law enforcement, as well, Casey said: While soldiers would remain on duty, civilian employees’ circumstances are less clear and military paychecks could be delayed. The most recent shutdown delayed hiring at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and led to the cancellation of 400 border-patrol hirings.

Veterans could see services slowed or halted, and benefits could be delayed, Casey said. While hospitals like the James E. Van Zandt Medical Center would remain open, it’s not clear whether services there could be impacted. Local and national Veterans Affairs officials declined to comment on expected effects.

“We don’t know if it would be a day, a week, a month, six weeks” for veterans’ benefits to arrive, Casey said. “We don’t know. But why should they wait a single day?”

The Small Business Administration would probably stop approving loans for small businesses, while federal farm loans and payments would halt, Holt noted. Other effects – including on unemployment payments, passports and visa applications – are expected but not totally clear.

The congressional funding dispute has grown more pitched this week, with Republicans raising the prospect of a fight for the country’s debt limit within weeks of the possible shutdown. Refusal to raise the debt ceiling could have even wider and more global effects than a shutdown, their opponents have said.

In public statements, local representatives have reaffirmed opposition to Obamacare funding while avoiding explicit support for a government shutdown.

“If Washington fails to keep the government running, too many people would be hurt, particularly our service members, veterans and seniors. I’m not willing to let this happen,” Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-5th District, said in an emailed statement, noting that he supported the House bill that ties funding to halting Obamacare.

Representatives of Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, didn’t provide information on Shuster’s position, but he has stated repeatedly that defunding Obamacare should be among Congress’ top priorities. Shuster voted for the defunding bill, as well.

“Unfortunately House Republicans’ attempts to repeal and defund Obamacare have been blocked at every turn by Senate Democrats and the president,” he wrote in a Sept. 20 opinion piece. “We can expect more of the same as we make another push to stop the law before Oct. 1.”

Congress and President Barack Obama have until Monday evening to reach an agreement, but in a speech Thursday, Obama described Republicans’ efforts as “blackmail.” If a shutdown occurs, it’s not clear how long it would last; the two closures from 1995 to 1996 lasted 28 days total, damaging an array of government offices, the congressional report said.

On Thursday, Casey said congressional Republicans should agree to keep funding the government and avoid a possible sovereign debt default before debating issues like Obamacare.

“Then we can have a debate ’til the cows come home,” he said. “But to put the American economy at risk and threaten a shutdown, I just don’t think is acceptable to a broad spectrum of the American public.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.