Government Shutdown effects mount as shuttered agencies exhaust workarounds, funding
The federal courts say they will run out of money next week to pay jurors, tax season is about to start with mass uncertainty about what will happen, and air traffic controllers say they are more concerned each day about whether the skies will remain safe amid the longest government shutdown ever.
Although the Trump administration has taken extraordinary steps to try to blunt the effects of the partial shutdown, agencies say they are running out of workarounds and the effects are piling up.
Federal workers in the nine shuttered departments some furloughed, others working as “essential” employees will miss a second paycheck Friday.
Now the federal courts, which had been operating on leftover money and kept extending their shutdown date, say they will hit a wall on Feb. 1.
“Next week is our last week of funding. There will be no further extensions,” said Charles Hall, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Some judges have put civil cases on hold, and the judiciary won’t be able to pay trial jurors their $50-per-day stipend come February. Although jurors would be paid eventually, some people might not show up for duty.
Payments to public defenders stopped on Christmas Eve, and further delays might deter lawyers from taking on more indigent clients. Contract workers may be unable to provide mental health services and drug tests for people on probation or awaiting trial.
Criminal cases will continue under defendants’ constitutional rights to a speedy trial, though each court will have to determine how it handles its civil docket.
Some cases, including one in federal claims court that seeks damages over the shutdown, have been postponed until the end of the shutdown.
“There is no precedent for a nationwide suspension of court activities,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “Even during the Civil War, civilian courts in the northern territories continued to function.”
The Transportation Security Administration, which runs screenings at airports, reports that its absentee rate has doubled, leading to delays at checkpoints.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association alarmed many by saying it could no longer guarantee the safety of its workers and the traveling public as the shutdown drags on.
“In our risk-averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement with union leaders for pilots and flight attendants.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, cited those words in pleading with senators to end the shutdown in dueling votes Thursday.
“These votes are about ending a manufactured crisis, a self-inflicted wound that is bleeding our country out a little more each day,” he said before his proposal failed.
Neither his plan a short-term funding bill with no new border security money nor the president’s broad immigration compromise had enough votes to overcome filibusters.
Yet all sides said they are worried for federal workers and frightened over the effects of the shutdown on basic government operations.
The shutdown began with less pain than others because it started over the Christmas holiday and because most of the government, including the symbolically important Defense Department, is fully funded.
Early Trump administration moves to keep national parks open and to bring some employees back to work without pay meant the public didn’t see major disruptions at first.
But unpaid workers have made their pain clear, and upcoming mileposts may spread the hurt to more Americans.
The hamstrung government will face its next big test Monday, when tax season begins. House Democrats say they are unsure whether the IRS will ensure a smooth refund process despite its recall of about 36,000 workers without pay.
The House Ways and Means Committee canceled a Thursday hearing on the issue after Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin declined to show.
In a brief letter, Mr. Mnuchin said he would be speaking to U.S. mayors at their winter meeting instead. He told committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, that he would be happy to send the most experienced and knowledgeable experts to discuss their contingency plan.
That didn’t pass muster for Democrats.
“With tax filing season beginning in five days and the timely issuing of taxpayer refunds at stake, we need to hear directly from the secretary to gain greater clarity regarding the IRS’s capabilities during the shutdown,” said Mr. Neal, citing reports that hundreds of IRS employees are skipping work because of financial hardship.
The shutdown is also starting to bite in less-noticeable ways. Federal workers soon will be billed for dental and vision benefits that normally would be taken out of their paychecks, now that two pay cycles have lapsed.
Scientists who monitor the cosmos also could be affected. The National Science Foundation has continued to fund the National Radio Astronomy Observatory using previously obligated funding, though if the shutdown extends into the spring, it likely will have to cease operations at its radio telescope base in New Mexico and similar antenna systems throughout the U.S.
“These are radio telescope systems that provide the astronomical research community with unique, advanced capabilities for basic research into the nature of the universe and its constituents,” observatory spokesman Dave Finley said.