Shutdown Impact: Veterans Regional Offices Close
WASHINGTON — A government shutdown is having far-reaching consequences for some, but minimal impact on others.
Mail is being delivered. Social Security and Medicare benefits continue to flow. But vacationers are being turned away from national parks and Smithsonian museums, and that’s having a ripple effect on those businesses and communities that rely on tourism. Borrowers applying for a mortgage can expect delays, particularly many low-to-moderate income borrowers and first-time homebuyers.
A look at how services have been affected, and sometimes not, by Congress failing to reach an agreement averting a partial government shutdown.
Federal air traffic controllers remain on the job and airport screeners continue to funnel passengers through security checkpoints. Furloughs of safety inspectors had put inspections of planes, pilots and aircraft repair stations on hold, but the Federal Aviation Administration says it is asking 800 employees — including some safety inspectors — to return to work this week. More than 2,900 inspectors had been furloughed. The State Department continues processing foreign applications for visas and U.S. applications for passports, since fees are collected to finance those services. Embassies and consulates overseas remain open and are providing services for U.S. citizens abroad.
Social Security and Medicare benefits continue to be paid out, but there could be delays in processing new disability applications. Unemployment benefits are also still going out. The state of Arizona opted to stop welfare benefits averaging $207 a week to about 5,200 families, despite assurances from the federal officials that the state would be reimbursed.
Federal courts have been using fees and other funds to operate since the shutdown began and will continue to do so until next Tuesday. After that, the courts will run out of money and shut down all non-essential work. A limited number of workers would perform essential work, while all others would be furloughed. Each court would make a determination on what is essential and non-essential. Judges would still be able to seat jurors, but the jurors won’t be paid until Congress provides funding. Court-appointed lawyers would also not get paid. Lack of funds for the Justice Department has already led to delays in some civil cases in which the department is a party. The Supreme Court opened its term Monday and says its business will go on despite the ongoing shutdown.
All national parks are closed. Grand National Canyon National Park was shut down for only the second time since it was created in 1919. The Grand Canyon averages 18,000 tourists per day in October, which has left hotels, concessionaires and tour operators losing money by the hour. In Washington, monuments along the National Mall have been closed, as have the Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo. Among the visitor centers that have closed: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. National Wildlife Refuges have been closed off to hunters and fishermen just as hunting season was getting underway in many states. Normally, hunting would be allowed on 329 wildlife refuges and fishing allowed on 271.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, the shutdown means the agency can no longer certify whether vehicles meet emissions standards, delaying some new models from reaching car lots. New pesticides and industrial chemicals are also in limbo because the EPA has halted reviews of their health and environmental effects. And the nation’s environmental police are no longer checking to see if polluters are complying with agreements to reduce their pollution.
The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they can handle recalls and high-risk foodborne outbreaks, but discovering them will be more difficult because many of the people who investigate outbreaks have been furloughed. Routine food safety inspections conducted by FDA are suspended, so most food manufacturers won’t have to worry about periodic visits from government inspectors to make sure their facilities are clean. U.S. food inspections abroad have also been halted, and border inspections could be slowed because there aren’t many as many workers to analyze food samples. The CDC had furloughed most of its scientists who track food safety outbreaks. But they have recalled many of those employees in light of an outbreak of salmonella in raw chicken that has sickened more than 278 people. USDA’s federal meat inspections are proceeding as usual. USDA inspectors are on the lines every day in meatpacking plants and are required to be there by law for the plants to stay open.
New patients are not being accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, but current patients continue to receive care. Medical research at the NIH has been disrupted as some studies have been delayed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been severely limited in spotting or investigating disease outbreaks such as the flu or that mysterious MERS virus from the Middle East. The FDA has halted the review and approval of new medical products and drugs.
The impact of the shutdown on school districts, colleges and universities has been relatively minimal so far. Student loans have continued to be paid out. But school trips to national parks and museums have been cancelled, and some university researchers have been unable to apply for grant funding or access government databases. If the shutdown lingers longer, however, districts and higher education institutions that rely on federal grants dollars to fund programs such as those for special education students could begin to feel the pinch, the Education Department has said.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will not investigate any charges of discrimination or respond to questions from the public during the shutdown. It will request delays in ongoing court proceedings and will not hold any hearings or mediations. The National Labor Relations Board, which investigates and remedies unfair labor practices, has virtually ceased to exist during the shutdown. More than 99 percent of its staff has been furloughed, postponing nearly every pending hearing, investigation and union election. The agency is continuing limited actions needed to protect ongoing litigation and keeping some personnel to deal with emergencies.
Americans would still have to pay their taxes and file federal tax returns, but the Internal Revenue Service suspended all audits. The IRS also will not be processing any tax refunds during the shutdown. Got questions? Sorry, IRS call centers will not be staffed, though automated lines are still running.
Some borrowers are finding it harder to close on their mortgages. Industry officials say the minor delays could worsen in the coming weeks if the shutdown continues and possibly undercut the nation’s housing recovery. Some lenders are having a hard time getting confirmation of applicants’ income tax returns and Social Security data because of government agency closures, delaying some closings. Furloughs at the Federal Housing Administration are slowing the agency’s processing of loans for some low- to moderate-income borrowers and first-time homebuyers. Some larger lenders, however, are able to approve FHA loans themselves. About 15 percent of new loans for home purchases are insured by the FHA. The Agriculture Department’s rural development loans, which make up a sliver of the overall mortgage market, are on hold.
The National Weather Service is forecasting weather and issuing warnings while the National Hurricane Center continues to track storms. The scientific work of the U.S. Geological Survey has been halted.
The FBI estimates that in all, about 80 percent of its 34,000 employees are working and says it is prepared to meet any immediate threats. However, activities are suspended for other, longer-term types of investigations of crimes that don’t involve an immediate threat. Training and other support functions have been slashed.
The military’s 1.4 million active duty personnel remain on duty. About half of the Defense Department’s civilian employees were furloughed, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered nearly all 350,000 back on the job. The shutdown created a ripple effect with some defense contractors. Lockheed Martin said Monday that it was furloughing about 2,400 workers. Top defense officials noted that critical programs and benefits that remain halted. For example, the department does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities for the survivors of service members killed in action – typically a cash payment of $100,000 paid within three days of the death of a service member. The military has also stopped providing tuition assistance for service members taking college courses during off-duty hours.
Veterans are still able to get inpatient care at hospitals and mental health counseling at vet centers and outpatient clinics because Congress approved funding for VA health care programs one year in advance. Operators are also staffing the crisis hotline. The VA says its efforts to reduce the backlog in disability benefit claims have been stalled because claims processors are no longer being required to work 20 hours of overtime per month. Access to regional VA offices has been suspended, making it harder for veterans to get information about their benefits and the status of their claims. If the shutdown continues into late October, the VA warns that compensation and pension payments to veterans will be halted.
The National Transportation Safety Board is not investigating most transportation accidents, making an exception only if officials believe lives or property are in danger. The board collected some preliminary evidence, but didn’t dispatch investigators to an air crash that killed four people in Paulden, Ariz. The board also decided not to investigate a church bus accident in Tennessee that killed eight people, the death of a Washington-area subway worker or a missing plane in the Mariana Islands. But investigators stayed on the job to probe a train collision in Chicago.
The CIA furloughed a “significant” but undisclosed number of workers when the shutdown began. A week later, CIA Director John Brennan said he would begin bringing back employees deemed necessary to the CIA’s core missions of foreign intelligence collection, analysis, covert action and counterintelligence. He said continuing dramatically reduced staffing levels posed a threat to the safety of human life and the protection of property.
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