Federal shutdown could affect thousands in St. Louis area
WASHINGTON -- There were days of eerie silence at the Gateway Arch. Across the country, every national park was shuttered. Only "essential" federal workers avoided furloughs in many offices, although post offices remained open and Social Security checks continued to be mailed.
That's what happened the last time there was a temporary shutdown of the federal government -- 15 years ago --- when a deadlocked Congress was unable to reach an agreement on a spending bill to fund government operations. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of federal employees, including about 8,500 in the St. Louis area, were furloughed. And many government contractors had payments delayed.
This week, facing a deadline of midnight Friday, Congress and the White House appear to be close to an agreement on the outlines of a continuing resolution that would put off a decision on federal spending cuts for a couple of weeks. But the specter of a partial government shutdown seemed likely to hover during much of March while Republicans and Democrats argued over how deeply to cut spending for the rest of this fiscal year.
In the meantime, federal employees and economic experts in Missouri and the St. Louis region are assessing the potential impact of a shutdown, which both President Barack Obama and congressional leaders of both political parties have said they will work to avoid because of potential disruptions to the economy and to federal services.
"For the sake of our people and our economy, we cannot allow gridlock to prevail," Obama said Saturday, arguing for a "balanced approach to deficit reduction." For his part, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans were committed to "working together to cut spending and rein in government -- not shutting it down."
With House Republicans floating a proposal that would keep the government funded until March 18 if Democratic lawmakers agree to trim about $4 billion from the budget over two weeks, a deal seems likely to be reached this week when the Senate debates the spending resolution.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Monday that "no one wants a government shutdown." However, he said in a statement to the Beacon that "our federal government is spending too much, and the House's short-term proposal is a reasonable approach and a good start."
Over the longer term, Blunt said, "everything must be on the table if we're going to ensure our federal government is meeting its key functions while living within its means."
Despite what appear to be good intentions on both sides of the spending debate, some federal workers were making contingency plans Monday, just in case the congressional talks break down this week.
Thousands Could Be Affected
If a new shutdown follows the pattern of the last one, hundreds of thousands of the nation's current 4.4 million federal workers could be furloughed. These would be "non-essential" employees, not including persons paid by the federal government who are directly involved with national defense, air traffic control and necessary medical care.
The last time federal government shut down closed parts of various agencies during the holiday season from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. About 8,500 federal workers in the St. Louis area were furloughed, out of about 28,500 local civilian federal employees at the time. This followed a five-day shutdown a month earlier.
Nationwide, about 800,000 federal employees were furloughed during the first shutdown. About 284,000 workers were furloughed during the second, longer stoppage.
At the time, the superintendent at the Gateway Arch -- who was one of a handful of employees deemed essential to running the closed National Park Service site -- described the silence there as "absolutely eerie." The Old Courthouse was closed, as were federal museums and national parks across the country, where millions of tourists found locked gates and doors.
While Social Security checks were mailed out, there were reports of delays in processing new Social Security applications and slowdowns in approving import and export licenses, as well as delays in processing some benefits for military veterans.
Also, work on more than 3,000 bankruptcy cases was suspended temporarily and there were delays in processing an estimated 200,000 applications for passports. Toxic waste cleanups stopped at more than 600 sites, and the National Institutes of Health didn't respond to its hotline calls.
But many federal workers stayed on the payroll. In addition to active-duty military, employees who were deemed to be essential included federal criminal investigators, workers involved directly in disaster assistance, and financial and clerical employees who were considered important to maintaining the banking and monetary systems.
If a shutdown were to occur in March, a significant percentage of the nearly 20,000 federal workers in the St. Louis area would likely be affected, officials say. But the portion of those employees actually furloughed -- if it is similar to the last shutdown -- would be less than a third.
As of last September, there were 59,277 federal employees in Missouri, according to Jeffrey Drake, research manager for labor statistics at the state Department of Economic Development's Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC). That figure does not include thousands of active-duty military at bases and installations scattered throughout Missouri.
Drake told the Beacon on Monday that 19,819 federal workers were on the Missouri side of the St. Louis metropolitan statistic area, and about 19,300 were on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area. (The federal employee statistics for the Illinois and Kansas sides of those two areas were not immediately available.) In total, Missouri has a total of about 2.65 million workers in all occupations.
All federal agencies are required to have contingency plans for potential shutdowns, including a list of which workers would be furloughed as non-essential. However, an official at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said Monday that the agency won't comment on the impact of a possible shutdown or on exactly how the determination would be made on which federal workers are "non-essential."
One major difference between a possible shutdown now and the previous 1995-96 shutdown during the presidency of Bill Clinton is the timing. March is near the peak of the tax-filing season. Not all employees of the Internal Revenue Service were considered essential the last time around.
While the IRS would likely continue to process income tax returns and include checks to the government, there would likely not be many IRS employees to answer hot-line questions or to process tax forms that seek refunds.
Contact Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig.