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Government shutdown could halt military pay, programs

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2017

WASHINGTON – As Congress and the White House flirt with another potential shutdown of the federal government, chances are growing for a disruption to military pay and programs starting this week.

Federal funding is slated to run out Friday, when Congress must strike a deal to keep the government’s lights on or face the daunting prospect of a shutdown.

With a great deal of turmoil on Capitol Hill now, members of Congress will have a tough time reaching a bipartisan funding deal. Democratic leadership have said there won’t be a plan until there’s a deal on the Child Health Insurance Program and immigration.

“If the government does shut down, this will have major impacts for the military,” said Lauren Fish, a defense strategies research associate for the Washington think tank, Center for a New American Security. First, “it’s an embarrassing look to the rest of the world, especially at a moment when so much is happening that requires American leadership, namely North Korea’s continued nuclear program and [intercontinental ballistic missile] testing. Secondly, government personnel doesn’t get paid during a shutdown.”

The military, along with the rest of the government, is operating off a short-term funding bill that was approved in September. It’s become a common practice for Congress to rely on the temporary spending measures, known as continuing resolutions, to keep the government functioning. The measures are used until a full budget is approved.

For example, a $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending plan that included the 2017 defense budget that began Oct. 1, 2016 wasn’t approved until May of this year.

Some congressional watchers are betting on another continuing resolution, or CR, to be approved, if not by Friday, then after a very brief government shutdown.

“I think we will see another CR. Some people think a two-week CR, but they should have one pushing into January 2018,” said Andrew Sherbo, a University of Denver finance professor who has tracked the defense bill for several years. If not, “nobody wins in a shutdown and the only thing that gets accomplished is a lot of finger pointing on who caused it.”

A short-term continuing resolution would give Congress time to work out a broader deal, said Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the liberal-leaning think tank Brookings Institution in Washington. However, the threat of a shutdown looms large.

“The biggest source of uncertainty — and thus the thing that could cause a shutdown — is immigration,” Reynolds says. “Do Democrats insist on a deal on [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigrant program] in exchange for their votes? Does [President Donald] Trump try to get involved? The tax bill, I think, could affect the timetable.”

A shutdown would force the federal government to send home nonessential workers without pay, shut down national parks and museums and trigger new administrative delays. It will also affect the Department of Defense.

A 16-day shutdown in October 2013 caused a rash of military programs to come to a sudden halt, including pay stoppage for military and civilian personnel and the disruption of base services such as commissaries. In addition, death gratuity payments for 30 Gold Star families were also disrupted.

That year, Congress quickly passed a bill to pay military personnel, but it wasn’t clear when they would be paid, if on a regular cycle or after the shutdown ended, Fish said. And while servicemembers didn’t know when they would be paid, Defense Department civilian workers did not know if they would get paid at all, she added.

But eventually, the government could end up paying workers’ salaries for the time during the shutdown though no work was done, Fish said.

“This has lasting impacts on morale, but it also directly links to the third big problem with shutdowns. Most [Defense Department] civilians are outside of the DC-area working on bases, maintaining equipment, and otherwise directly supporting servicemembers,” she said. “Shutdowns mean those things do not get done, unless the job is exempted from the shutdown. This can severely impact military readiness.”

Last week, Trump raised the specter of a shutdown when he tweeted that a planned meeting with Democratic congressional leaders to keep the “government open and working” would involve plans to deal with illegal immigrants, among other issues. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promptly cancelled the Nov. 28 meeting.

Now, after Trump extended a new invitation, the two sides say they will try to meet again Thursday – the day before the shutdown deadline.

“We must reach a spending deal that would have us meet our commitments to support the military and also urgent priorities here at home,” Schumer said Tuesday in a Senate floor speech. “We Democrats support an increase for our military, but we want to make sure other, crucial programs don’t get left behind. So we will fight just as hard in this budget agreement to ensure that, for each dollar we add for defense, a dollar is added for domestic economic development.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sounded an optimistic tone that the two sides can reach a deal ahead of Friday’s deadline.

“By approving a short-term bill, we can continue the crucial functions of the federal government while we work with our colleagues in the House and the Trump administration to finalize a long-term plan,” he said Tuesday from the Senate floor. “All members should be able to support this non-controversial, short-term legislation.”

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales
  

A government shutdown in 2013 resulted in the closing of such Washington, D.C. landmarks as the Lincoln Memorial and the National World War II Memorial.
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