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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Tremendously impactful’: Here’s what a government shutdown could mean for the Inland Northwest

As of Thursday, a budget has not been passed, with a short-term spending bill stalled in the House of Representatives after passing in the Senate. Were a government shutdown to occur, more than 50,000 federal workers in Washington and at least 9,200 in Idaho would work without pay until Congress restores funding.  (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

WASHINGTON – A government shutdown appeared all but certain Thursday, despite bipartisan efforts in the Senate to pass a short-term spending bill, as House Republicans instead took a series of symbolic votes with no prospect of funding the government before a new fiscal year begins on Sunday.

A lapse in government funding could have an immediate impact on people in the Inland Northwest, including the more than 54,500 federal workers in Washington and nearly 9,200 more in Idaho who would work without pay until Congress restores funding, according to recent estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The nation’s 1.3 million active-duty members of the military would also go unpaid.

After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., struck a deal with President Joe Biden in May to set spending limits – which Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have followed as they craft annual appropriations bills – GOP hardliners in the House have refused to fund the government without making deeper cuts and enacting right-wing policies.

While moderate Republicans and Democrats could likely cobble together enough votes to pass a measure to fund the government at current levels until Congress passes a full-year spending package, a handful of far-right lawmakers have threatened to oust McCarthy if he brings a bipartisan bill to the floor for a vote.

That raises the specter of a lapse in funding that lasts even longer than the 35-day shutdown that began in late 2018, when then-President Donald Trump demanded money to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. In a post on his Truth Social platform Sunday, Trump ordered congressional Republicans, “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!”

The impact of a shutdown depends largely on how long it lasts. The most recent shutdown, which began in December 2018 and stretched into 2019, cost the U.S. economy about $11 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Some federal employees would be required to work without pay, while others would be sent home during the shutdown, also without pay. By law, federal workers and military service members receive back pay when Congress funds the government again, but that doesn’t apply to some federal contractors. Each federal agency determines which of its employees must report to work during a shutdown, hampering operations even as essential work continues.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Barker, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, said a shutdown would be “tremendously impactful” on his office, which leads federal law enforcement east of the Cascades.

Up to 40% of employees in the office, Barker said in a statement, may be furloughed during a shutdown, including assistant U.S. attorneys and staff who handle much of the office’s civil case work. Government contractors who support the office, he added, could go without pay and without guaranteed back pay.

“The majority of our office will still be required to work without pay,” he said, including prosecutors and their support teams who handle criminal cases and other work where lives are at stake.

“Our office routinely handles incredibly serious cases involving allegations of violence, high-level drug trafficking, civil rights, child exploitation, environmental justice, and large-scale fraud. Work in these critical areas must continue, but it does so at a personal cost for those who are asked to work without pay.”

The lapse in funding would make it hard to ensure witnesses in important criminal trials are available to testify and to pay jurors for their service, Barker added. Despite those challenges, he said the office’s employees are committed to working even if they don’t know when they’ll be paid.

Benefits such as Social Security and Medicare payments, which are funded by mandatory spending, would continue during a shutdown, but other parts of the social safety net could be interrupted. The roughly 131,000 women, infants and children in Washington who receive food aid through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, often called WIC, could lose that support, along with nearly 31,000 others in Idaho, according to White House estimates.

Northwest tribes and their individual members could also see impacts from a shutdown, including emergency operating plans for tribal law enforcement agencies, courts, schools and housing programs.

In a statement Sept. 22, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, said that tribal nations have paid “with our lives, with our lands, with our resources, and with our ways of life” for the federal funds the U.S. government owes to them.

“We paid long before political factions sought to divide this nation, and your debt is due,” she said. “Congress must uphold its end of the deal. Native lives are not a political bargaining chip.”

The Veterans Health Administration, the part of the Department of Veterans Affairs that operates clinics and hospitals across the Inland Northwest, will continue to operate as normal because it receives funding in two-year increments, according to a statement from the department. But VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Sept. 22 that a shutdown would prevent the department from doing outreach to veterans, career counseling, helping veterans transition out of the military and doing maintenance at VA cemeteries.

Members of the military, including airmen at Fairchild Air Force Base, would also have to work without pay until a shutdown is resolved. According to the White House, the nation’s 1.3 million active-duty service members include 62,100 in Washington and another 3,500 in Idaho.

Master Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady, spokesman for the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, said even a short-term spending bill that continues the past year’s spending – known as a continuing resolution – would fail to give the armed forces the support they need for the year ahead.

“Continuing resolutions have devastating impacts on the Air and Space Forces,” Lovelady said in a statement. “We need Congress to pass timely appropriations to adequately equip our Airmen and Guardians, ensure military readiness, launch new investment programs, and reduce uncertainty with our industry and international partners.”

The president’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year, he added, “advances investments in Air Force and Space Force capabilities that directly support the National Defense Strategy and cannot be delayed if we intend to maintain our strategic advantage.”

While the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has advanced bipartisan funding bills that adhere to the spending limits set by the Biden-McCarthy deal in May, hardline House Republicans have promised to block any such bills – or even a short-term measure to keep paying government workers. On Wednesday, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on his House counterpart to keep the government open, pointing out that failing to do so would mean blocking pay for Border Patrol and other law enforcement agents.

“I’m not in charge,” a visibly frustrated Rep. Mike Simpson said Thursday before the House voted on partisan spending bills that have no chance of passing the Democratic-majority Senate or being signed into law by Biden. The Idaho Falls Republican, one of the 12 subcommittee chairmen who typically control the annual appropriations process, said a series of symbolic votes his party took to reduce various officials’ annual salaries to $1 were “irresponsible.”

On Wednesday, House Republicans passed an amendment to their defense bill – proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. – to cut Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s pay to $1. While that measure was adopted by voice vote, GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, voted for amendments that would do the same to other officials, including the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence chief.

Congress has until the end of Saturday to fund the government. Unless McCarthy changes course and allows a vote on a short-term spending bill, a shutdown will begin Sunday morning.