The Government Shutdown
4:04 pm
Fri October 4, 2013

You've Got Shutdown Questions. We've Got Answers

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 4:47 pm

There's no end in sight to the partial shutdown of the federal government, which has now gone on for four days.

Earlier this week, All Things Considered asked you to submit your questions about the shutdown. NPR's Audie Cornish put those questions to a crack team of NPR reporters for answers:

Is our food or medicine unsafe?

Washington correspondent Brian Naylor: "The [Food and Drug Administration] says it is suspending routine establishment inspections, along with some compliance and enforcement activities and notification programs. Now, a large amount of the produce that we consume is inspected by state and local governments, so that won't be affected. The meat inspectors who work for the [Agriculture] Department — they're on the job. Those inspections will continue. But the concern is that, should there be a need for a recall — that a processing facility [is] discovered to be contaminated — those folks are not on the job. Now, the FDA says it can recall employees to handle an emergency, but a lot of the routine monitoring and enforcement is not taking place.

"In terms of drugs, most of the drugs on the shelf have already undergone approval, but new drug approvals are being halted as the shutdown continues."

With Tropical Storm Karen in the Gulf of Mexico, is the National Hurricane Center affected by the shutdown?

Naylor: "The hurricane center is operating and they are issuing forecasts. In fact, they recalled their media spokesman because that's an important part of their job ... dealing with the media. [The Federal Emergency Management Agency] also announced that it's recalling furloughed employees to help protect life and property and prepare for the potential landfall of Karen. And we should also say that most shelters — those sorts of things — are operated by state and local government. But the good news is, the feds are saying that they will provide the backup and support as necessary."

Will furloughed employees receive back pay when the shutdown is over?

Naylor: "In every single previous shutdown, the answer has been yes. This time, Congress has before it bills that would reimburse federal employees — not just the ones who are essential, they'll certainly be paid — but also those who have been furloughed. Those bills may come up as soon as this weekend. There seems to be a lot of sentiment to pay these employees."

What is the status of pay and benefits for active-duty and retired military?

Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman: "First of all, active-duty military pay is protected — that's one thing Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on. Both houses passed a bill signed by the president on Sept. 30 protecting members of the active-duty military during this shutdown. Now, also Guard and Reserve troops who are called to active federal duty will be paid.

"As far as military retirees and survivor benefits, they're not affected, since those accounts are not subject to regular appropriations. So they will get those checks.

"As far as the [Veterans Affairs] disability benefits and payments, all checks have gone out for October, but the VA said that if the shutdown goes on for, let's say, two or three more weeks, they might not have enough cash on hand to pay benefits in November."

Is there a larger question about the shutdown's effect on military readiness?

Bowman: "There is. First of all, the shutdown won't affect combat operations in Afghanistan. They will continue. But there are military readiness issues for the other forces.

"The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, says the shutdown will have a big impact on day-to-day Army operations because of cuts in training and travel. As far as the Air Force, some of the operations of combat aircraft have been curtailed, except for those set to deploy. So there is an impact."

Is pay for members of Congress affected by the shutdown? Are the congressional cafeterias or barbershops open?

Congressional correspondent Tamara Keith: "Members of Congress do actually continue to get paid. However, more than 100 members of Congress have already said that they intend to donate their pay to charity.

"Some of the cafeterias are open, but many of them are closed. I went by the Senate Hair Care office today, and it is closed. And the shampoo cases have padlocks on them."

Are members of Congress able to receive calls and emails, or have they been effectively cut off from their constituents because of the shutdown?

Keith: "Here's the fascinating thing: They may actually have a closer connection to their constituents now than ever before. Many of those junior employees or interns who would normally answer the phone have been furloughed, and actual members of Congress, in some cases, are answering their phones. I asked several members, 'Well, what are you hearing from your constituents?' and they were like, 'Yeah, well, when I answered the phone, I spoke to people who said this.' They really are, in some cases, answering their own phones. So I would say that the best way to get a message to your member of Congress is to call their office and you may just talk to the member him- or herself."

What will the government do with all it "saves" by placing government employees on furlough and shutting down nonessential programs?

Keith: "Odds are, no money will be saved, especially if this legislation to provide back pay to furloughed employees ends up going through. According to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget, the last government shutdown in 1995 and '96, that ended up costing the federal government about $1.4 billion, which in today's dollars would be around $2 billion. Shutting things down, mothballing — that costs money. Getting things up and running again — that costs money. And then there are all of the uncollected fines and taxes because people are not on the job."

Listener Brian Blakeley from Caldwell, Idaho, writes: "My family is going to D.C. in three weeks for a vacation. What are the odds that the government will still be shut down by October 20th?"

Naylor: "I would just say, you know, to me it looks as though this is going to continue at least until we get to the debt ceiling crisis, which is the next looming calamity down the road. That's scheduled to occur around Oct. 17. My guess is that it'll be ... solved somewhere around that time. Choosing the 20th, though, that might be a little dicey."

Keith: "One Republican congressman who I spoke to yesterday on background said that there is no endgame here, and that the strategy changes basically every 24 hours. So planning all the way ahead to the 20th — there could be some sort of a breakthrough. There's a lot of things bubbling under the surface. But all I will say is that Washington, D.C., is a lovely place to visit, even if you can't get into the monuments and museums."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The government shutdown has now entered its fourth day with no sign of a deal to end it. Earlier this week, we asked listeners to submit questions about the shutdown. And now we're going to answer some of them. We've assembled a crack reporting team to help us out: congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey there, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Washington correspondent Brian Naylor, he covers federal agencies. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: And Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So let's jump right in with you, Brian, actually because we received a number of questions about the state of various federal agencies. Here's one of them.

MOLLY OSTERTAG: Hi. This is Molly Ostertag(ph) from New York City. I am especially worried about the FDA undergoing large cutbacks. I was wondering if we should avoid buying any specific produce or medicine.

CORNISH: All right, Brian. So there's the question, our food and medicine, any chance that this has made it unsafe?

NAYLOR: Well, the FDA says it is suspending routine establishment inspections, along with some compliance and enforcement activities and notification programs. Now, a large amount of the produce that we consume is inspected by state and local governments. So that won't be affected. The meat inspectors who work for the Ag Department, they're on the job. Those inspections will continue. But the concern is that should there be a need for a recall, that a processing facility is discovered to be contaminated, those folks are not on the job. Now, the FDA says it can recall employees to handle an emergency, but a lot of the routine monitoring and enforcement is not taking place.

In terms of drugs, most of the drugs on the shelf have already undergone approval, but new drug approvals are being halted as the shutdown continues.

CORNISH: Another government function that some listeners are worried about is the National Hurricane Center. With a tropical storm in the Gulf that might become a hurricane, is the center affected by the shutdown?

NAYLOR: Well, that's a really good question. The Hurricane Center is operating, and they are issuing forecasts. In fact, they recalled their media spokesman because that's an important part of their job, is dealing with the media. FEMA also announced that it's recalling furloughed employees to help protect life and property and prepare for the potential landfall of Karen. So - and we should also say that most shelters, those sorts of things are operated by state and local government. But the good news is that the feds are saying that they will provide the backup and support as necessary.

CORNISH: And, Brian Naylor, another question we received: Will furloughed employees receive back pay when the shutdown is over?

NAYLOR: In every single previous shutdown, the answer has been yes. This time, Congress has before it bills that would reimburse federal employees, not just the ones who are essential - they'll certainly be paid - but also those who have been furloughed. Those bills may come up as soon as this weekend. There seems to be a lot of sentiment to pay these employees.

CORNISH: Now, Tom Bowman, I want to turn to you because the Department of Defense is such a huge employer, and we received a number of questions about military pay and benefits. We have one listener who said her son, who is on active duty, heard his pay may not come on time. And we heard from this listener.

LISA LEMZA: My name is Lisa Lemza(ph). I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My spouse and I are retired Army officers. Will our retirement income and disability pay continue during the shutdown?

CORNISH: So, Tom, how about it, status of pay and benefits for active-duty and retired military.

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, active-duty military pay is protected. That's one thing Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on. Both houses passed a bill signed by the president on September 30th, protecting members of the active-duty military during the shutdown. Now, also, Guard and Reserve troops who were called to active federal duty will be paid. Now, as far as military retirees and survivor benefits, they're not affected since those accounts are not subject to regular appropriations. So they will get those checks. As far as the VA disability benefits and payments, all checks have gone out for October, but the VA said that if the shutdown goes on for, let's say, two or three more weeks, they might not have enough cash on hand to pay benefits in November.

CORNISH: So Congress carved out some special attention so that the shutdown wouldn't affect our troops. But is there a larger question about the effect of all this on military readiness?

BOWMAN: You know, there is. First of all, the shutdown won't affect combat operations in Afghanistan. They will continue. But there are military readiness issues for the other forces. The Army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, says the shutdown will have a big impact on day-to-day Army operations because of cuts in training and travel. As far as the Air Force, some of the operations of combat aircraft have been curtailed, except for those set to deploy. So there is an impact.

CORNISH: Now, Tamara, you're on Capitol Hill. And the most common question we received was, is pay for members of Congress affected by the shutdown? And there were some follow-up questions about whether the congressional cafeterias or, say, the barbershops are open. How about it?

KEITH: OK. So members of Congress do actually continue to get paid. However, more than a hundred members of Congress have already said that they intend to donate their pay to charity. Some of the cafeterias are open, but many of them are closed. I went by the Senate hair care office today, and it is closed. And the shampoo cases have padlocks on them.

CORNISH: OK. They mean business.

KEITH: They do.

CORNISH: Here's another listener question.

CATHY AUGUR: Hi. This is Cathy Augur(ph) from Cincinnati, Ohio. I tried to contact my congressman and received a message about constituents' responses being delayed due to the shutdown. So I wonder: Are members of Congress able to receive calls and emails or have they been effectively cut off from their constituents because of the shutdown?

KEITH: Here's the fascinating thing. They may actually have a closer connection to their constituents now than ever before. Many of those junior employees or interns who would normally answer the phone have been furloughed. And actual members of Congress, in some cases, are answering their phones. I asked several members, well, what are you hearing from your constituents? And they were like, yeah, well, when I answered the phone, I spoke to people who said this. They really are, in some cases, answering their own phones. So I would say that the best way to get a message to your member of Congress is to call their office. And you may just talk to the member him- or herself.

CORNISH: Here's an interesting question from Jed Taylor(ph) from Denver. He asks: What will the government do with all they save by placing government employees on furlough and shutting down nonessential programs?

KEITH: Odds are no money will be saved, especially if this legislation to provide back pay to furloughed employees ends up going through. According to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget, the last government shutdown in 1995 and '96, that ended up costing the federal government about $1.4 billion, which in today's dollars would be around $2 billion. Shutting things down, mothballing, that costs money. Getting things up and running again, that costs money. And then there are all of the uncollected fines and taxes because people are not on the job.

CORNISH: Now listener Brian Blakeley(ph) from Caldwell, Idaho, tells us that he has planned a family trip to Washington, D.C., in a few weeks and was hoping to visit the Smithsonian. Now I can pass this question on to the whole group because he's asking, what are the odds the government will still be shut down October 20th? Who wants to take a stab at it?

NAYLOR: Well, I would just say, you know, to me it looks as though this is going to continue at least until we get to the debt ceiling crisis, which is the next looming calamity down the road. That's scheduled to occur around October 17th. My guess is that it'll be, you know, solved somewhere around that time. Choosing the 20th, though, that might be a little dicey.

KEITH: One Republican congressman who I spoke to yesterday on background said that there is no endgame here and that the strategy changes basically every 24 hours. So planning all the way ahead to the 20th, you know, there could be some sort of a breakthrough. There's a lot of things bubbling under the surface. But all I will say is that Washington, D.C. is a lovely place to visit, even if you can't get into the monuments and museums.

CORNISH: All right. Thanks to everybody who sent in questions. Also, Tamara Keith, Tom Bowman and Brian Naylor, thank you all for answering them.

KEITH: Glad to be with you.

NAYLOR: You're welcome.

BOWMAN: Thank you.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.