‘It’s a disgrace’: Service members brace for work without pay as government shutdown appears imminent
Stars and Stripes September 29, 2023
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WASHINGTON — Paychecks issued Friday to troops and military personnel are expected to be the last that they receive before an almost certain government shutdown forces them to work without pay starting Sunday.
The shutdown appeared unavoidable Friday as the Republican-led House rejected a short-term funding bill with steep spending cuts and refused to consider a bipartisan agreement floated by the Democrat-led Senate.
There was also no progress on bills introduced by veterans in Congress who hoped to keep service members, including reservists, paid in case of a shutdown. About 1.3 million active-duty troops are set to miss paychecks but will be repaid once the shutdown ends.
President Joe Biden described the gridlock on Capitol Hill as “an absolute dereliction of duty” as he spoke Friday at the retirement ceremony for Army Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Our service members will keep upholding their oath, showing up for work, standing sentinel around the world, keeping our country secure but they won’t get paid,” Biden said. “It’s a disgrace.”
Thousands of civilian workers at the Defense Department also will be furloughed if Congress does not pass a stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, by the end of Saturday.
“The longer the shutdown lasts, the harder it will become for military families to pay their bills,” Biden said. “We can’t be playing politics while our troops stand in the breach.”
The House and Senate remain far apart on an agreement to keep the government funded.
The Senate on Friday was moving ahead with a bill that would continue funding at current levels while providing $6 billion in aid to Ukraine and $6 billion for disaster relief. The House had proposed a measure that would impose drastic cuts across the government, but it was voted down 198-232, with 21 Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.
At least 10 far-right Republicans in the House said they will refuse to vote for any stopgap bill.
The impasse has left service members and their families, especially among the enlisted ranks, bracing for financial impact. One in three military families has less than $3,000 in savings, which is not enough to cover the cost of most housing and child care, according to Blue Star Families, a nonprofit network of military families.
A survey that the group plans to release next week found 63% of active-duty respondents feel they will be greatly impacted by a shutdown. Pay was by far the most common concern for military families, who often depend solely on a service member’s income.
“We already live paycheck to paycheck,” a spouse of a junior enlisted service member said in the survey. “If we lost half our income, it would make it hard to not drown in bills.”
Another survey respondent, a spouse of a field grade officer, said a shutdown would strain the family’s ability to buy food — a problem already faced by nearly one in four service members, according to the most recent data from the Defense Department.
Many survey respondents expressed frustration with being caught in a political fight and said the uncertainty caused by government shutdowns makes them less likely to recommend military service to others.
“We will not get paid. We will not be able to pay our mortgage,” said a spouse of a field grade officer. “Why would we want to continue to serve in a military that is run by people that don’t understand the basic needs of its soldiers and their families?”
Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., a Navy veteran, implored the House on Thursday to protect pay for troops, including members of the Coast Guard. More than 50 lawmakers have signed on to support the effort but it appeared stalled in the House and Senate on Friday.
In 2013, Congress voted to keep paychecks flowing to service members just hours before the start of a 16-day government shutdown.
“I’m committed to ensuring our service members get a paycheck, no matter what’s happening here in Washington,” Kiggans said. “If there’s anything that can unite us, it should be taking care of our troops.”