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How the looming government shutdown will affect Texans

4 months 3 weeks 4 days ago Wednesday, September 27 2023 Sep 27, 2023 September 27, 2023 3:34 PM September 27, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
By: MATTHEW CHOI | THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
The U.S. Capitol, seen in a reflection, on a cloudy evening Jan. 22, 2023 in Washington D.C. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

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WASHINGTON — Over 100,000 active duty service members in Texas could go without a paycheck. Even more civilians working for federal agencies in the state could be furloughed or have to work without pay. Food subsidies for low-income women, infants and children could dry up. Airport security lines could get longer. FEMA payments to state and local governments could be late.

A federal shutdown, precipitated by an ideological battle in Congress, would put thousands of Texans in financial precarity. Congress is continuing to debate a path forward to keep the government funded, but with less than a week left until the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, a shutdown appears imminent.

Democrats are quick to blame Republicans, and Republicans are beginning to blame each other. The House Republican Conference has been in a fractured state since taking the majority this year, and several far-right Republicans are willing to tank Congress’ annual appropriations process in a bid to get stronger border security measures, drastically reduced spending levels and stopping further aid to Ukraine.

All are priorities that would have no chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

What will be impacted

Federal employees in Texas are at risk of going without a paycheck, depending on the agency they work for and the amount of money their agency has on reserve. Texas has over 120,000 civilian federal employees and over 114,000 active duty service members. Civilian employees include air traffic controllers, airport security officers, Medicare service center workers and Customs and Border Protection.

Employees deemed essential could be required to work without pay, though they would get back paid once the federal government reopens. Employees for critical infrastructure, such as air travel and defense are almost always deemed essential.

But even with back pay, working for free can put those employees in a challenging position keeping their families fed and staying on top of their bills. The last time the government shutdown, for over 30 days from 2018 to 2019, food banks saw a drastic uptick in demand from furloughed federal workers, said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas.

“We are going to see basically uncertainty for thousands of families in Texas, in a state where there's already a lot of people living just one paycheck away from needing support from their food bank,” Cole said.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are paid for by legislation outside of the annual appropriations process, meaning checks will largely go out as normal. But the lack of staffing means support for those programs could get delayed. Offices for Texans to sign up or renew eligibility for the programs will be closed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that there will be enough money for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to go out normally for all of October if the government shuts down. But if the shutdown stretches longer than a month, as it did in 2019, the program’s continuity is less clear. Over 3 million Texans use the program.

The special SNAP for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, could take a hit much earlier, however. Funding for the program depends more heavily on how much each state has in reserves. Nearly 800,000 Texans use the program to access food and formula before and after birth.

A spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said it is “closely monitoring the potential shutdown and are evaluating funding options for affected services and staff positions in case of a federal shutdown.”

Border security, which is likely to be deemed essential, could also take a hit. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Customs and Border Protection officers are already suffering low morale from long hours and insufficient funding, and working conditions would only worsen if they are forced to work without pay.

A Senate study after the 2018-2019 shutdown found that the Department of Homeland Security delayed maintenance of border facilities at the time due to lack of funding, which “endangered the lives of law enforcement officers and created significant border security vulnerabilities.”

In several parts of rural Texas close to the border, Border Patrol often supplement law enforcement. During the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, more than half of the responders were Border Patrol. But those agents could have to work without a paycheck if the government shuts down.

“In rural communities, these federal employees are critical,” Escobar said. “They are the law enforcement personnel that many rural communities depend on. And what the House Republicans are doing is essentially telling those federal employees we need you, but we don't want to pay you.”

During the 2013 shutdown, Congress passed legislation at the eleventh hour that would secure active duty military pay through the government closure, and lawmakers are making a similar push now. U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg, introduced similar legislation this week to protect Border Patrol pay. But with the House barely capable of even passing the procedural rules required to consider appropriations legislation, there’s only a narrow amount of time for even those emergency bills to get through.

The shutdown could also jeopardize payments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during hurricane season. The agency has already begun delaying payments to ration money, The Washington Post reported, meaning state projects to recover from disasters could be held up.

Texas also has over 4,700 Transportation Security Administration officers and over 1,200 air traffic controllers — all of whom would likely have to work without a paycheck if the shutdown stretches beyond their next pay period. The loss of pay could lead to low morale and agents calling in sick, as occurred during the last shutdown.

“The slowdowns and loss of safety personnel that we experienced during previous shutdowns were unacceptable, and it is essential that hiring, training, and pay for these vital air safety professionals are not interrupted by any lapse in funding,” Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in a statement.

How it got here

Congress must pass appropriations legislation before the end of each fiscal year to determine which federal programs get how much money. Congress has failed to reach that Sept. 30 deadline every year since 1996, opting instead to pass temporary funding measures called continuing resolutions to buy time to pass year-long funding bills.

But several far-right Republicans are refusing to pass a continuing resolution without major concessions, including the passage of a House Republican bill to harden the border that Democrats revile. They are also demanding a stop to assistance to Ukraine, which Senate Republicans and Democrats largely agree is a critical national security priority.

Republicans “are all willing to shut down the government and throw working people under the bus and damage the economy, just because they think that it's going to go politically well for them, and that is disgraceful, and it's wrong and Texans need to know it,” U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, said.

The far-right and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy struck a deal earlier this month to pass a continuing resolution that would keep the government funded for 30 days into the new fiscal year, buying time to pass the full appropriations legislation. The deal would cut non-defense discretionary spending by 8%, eliminate Ukraine aid and tack on the House Republican border security bill.

Texas Republicans in particular have demanded border security be a part of any funding deal — even though a shutdown could weaken defenses on the southern border. The House Republican border security bill was born out of a border plan designed by conservatives in the Texas delegation to increase penalties for cartels, build a border wall and keep asylum seekers in Mexico.

Democrats and several Republicans immediately decried the continuing resolution deal as a nonstarter. It is far below the spending limit negotiated by the White House and McCarthy to raise the debt limit last spring and would drastically cut spending for programs ranging from education to health care. The Senate reached a bipartisan deal Tuesday for its own continuing resolution, essentially in direct opposition to the House Republican proposal.

“The decision for @POTUS @JoeBiden - will he shut down the border or shut down the government?” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, posted on social media. Roy was among the far-right Republicans who negotiated the continuing resolution.

But yet another rebellion within the House Republican conference shuttered the continuing resolution path, with a cohort of ultraconservative members, including U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, refusing to pass any kind of bandaid and instead focusing on the individual appropriations bills — even if it leads to a shutdown. Gaetz has threatened to use a procedural move to launch a vote to remove McCarthy as speaker if he doesn’t do as he wishes.

McCarthy now has to choose between continuing to concede to his hard right flank, only for any bills to face instant death in the Democratic Senate, or reach out to Democrats to bail him out and keep the government running.

McCarthy has “essentially handed all his power over to the most extreme Republicans who are sending us to a shutdown,” Casar said.

Stephen Simpson contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/27/government-shutdown-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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