COLUMBIA, SC — A federal government shutdown, which could come this week, would mean no new federal contracts for S.C. businesses, furloughs for some federal workers and delayed pay for others, who must continue to work because they are deemed essential to protecting life and property.
It would be “devastating to the economy of South Carolina, more than most states,” because of the state’s military bases and industries that rely on defense-related federal contracts, said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia.
Clyburn is assistant leader of Democrats in the U.S. House. But Republicans agree – a partial shutdown would hurt the state’s economy, still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.
A federal shutdown “would create such stress in families, in terms of some people being paid and employed and some people not,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale. “That’s why it should be avoided. It’s not in the interest of really anyone.”
Medicaid and Social Security payments would continue to flow because they part of permanent law, said Sharon Parrott with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
But there would be other disruptions in federal services that paid for through the appropriations process, she said.
And those disruptions could hurt the state’s economy.
For example, delays in federal loan approvals could hurt the housing industry. There also would be delays in the processing of passport and visa applications, and reviews of federal tax returns and issuance of refunds. Some national parks, such as Congaree National Park in Lower Richland and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and federally run museums and historic sites also likely would close, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service says.
Agencies that pay for themselves, including the U.S. Post Office, would not be affected.
But is a partial federal shutdown likely as congressional Democrats and Republicans argue over the budget and Obamacare?
Clyburn, South Carolina’s lone Democrat in Washington, told reporters in Columbia Tuesday that a shutdown “is a realistic possibility but highly improbable.”
By Friday, his outlook was less optimistic. “I still believe in the state’s (South Carolina’s) motto – while I breathe, I hope. But time is running out for the Republicans to do the right thing and stop this brinkmanship.”
Republicans, who control the House, counter that Democratic President Barack Obama and the Democratic-majority U.S. Senate should do the right thing and abandon the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement as president.
A shutdown could happen if Congress fails to reach an agreement on a spending plan that would keep the government open after midnight Monday, the last day the federal government is authorized to spend money.
The GOP-controlled House and Democratic-majority Senate have passed differing versions of a new spending bill. One key difference – over the Affordable Care Act – sets the stage for a shutdown or negotiations.
In their spending plan, House Republicans included language designed to cripple Obamacare, the federal health-care law. However, the Senate approved a spending plan that removed that language Friday after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, gave a vote-delaying 21-hour speech in protest of the health-care law.
Now, the House and Senate have until midnight Monday to reach an agreement and send a spending plan to Obama, who can sign or veto the proposal.
Impact on S.C. military
Federal agencies were making decisions Friday about which employees would continue working and which ones would face furloughs in the event of a shutdown.
Only employees essential to protecting life and property, including the soldiers at Columbia’s Fort Jackson and airmen at Sumter’s Shaw Air Force Base, would continue to work. They would be paid retroactively when the government is running again, Robert Hale, a Defense Department undersecretary, said in a news briefing Friday.
Under the Defense Department’s plan, active-duty military personnel and civilian employees needed to support essential military operations would continue to work. All others would be furloughed, including about half of the military’s civilian workers, Hale said.
Many personnel at South Carolina’s military bases – in Columbia, Eastover, Sumter, Beaufort and Charleston – and other federal employees and contractors would face furloughs.
Fort Jackson in Columbia, for example, employs 3,500 civilians who could be affected, said media relations officer Pat Jones.
About half of the 2,000 full-time employees of the S.C. National Guard, which operates McEntire Joint Base in Lower Richland, also would face furloughs, said Col. James Finley, the Guard’s chief of staff.
While the Guard would be able to respond to disasters if they occur, weekend training would be put on hold, Finley said.
SRS, contractors face cuts, too
Other S.C. communities could be hurt as well.
In June, more than 11,000 federal contractors and U.S. Department of Energy employees were working near Aiken at the Savannah River Site nuclear waste cleanup facility, budgeted at $1.2 billion a year.
All SRS employees, except those deemed essential, face the possibility of furlough if the government shuts down, said Steven Thai, a U.S. Department of Energy spokesman. Contract workers, for example, would be furloughed as soon as they complete any work remaining on existing funded contracts.
Eight employees at Savannah River’s operations office meet the definition of essential, according to the Energy Department’s plan for managing a government shutdown, posted Friday on its website. However, an Energy Department spokesperson at Savannah River said the number of employees facing a furlough still is in flux.
Federal contractors in other communities also could be hit. Their contracts amount to billions of dollars annually for the state’s economy.
Existing contracts – those already paid for – would not be affected. But new contracts would be delayed until Congress approves paying for them.
The Obamacare debate
South Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators and six congressmen say they want to avoid a government shutdown. They also say they want to have a conversation about the federal health-care law, one they say has not happened yet.
“Very few people here actually are pursuing a government shutdown,” U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, told Al Sharpton recently on PoliticsNation. “We are trying to have a discussion about Obamacare.”
Mulvaney and other S.C. Republicans in Congress say the health-care program will force people off their health insurance plans and hurt the economy by encouraging employers to the cut the hours of workers to avoid having to subsidize their insurance.
Mulvaney told Sharpton that Democrats are unfairly blaming Republicans for threatening a shutdown. The real blame, he said, rests with Democrats for their refusal to consider delaying or defunding the health-care law, adding President Obama already has issued executive orders delaying part of the bill.
But Republicans, too, are unwilling to compromise.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, said he would not vote for a spending plan unless it includes provisions to delay or defund some or all of the health-care law.
Asked whether he would risk a shutdown to achieve those goals, he said, “I’m not advocating for a government shutdown. If that happens, we’ll cross the bridge when we get to it.”
‘Not the way to run the government’
Even a brief shutdown will be disruptive because of the management challenges involved, said Col. Finley with the S.C. National Guard.
The longer the federal government is offline, the more severe the consequences will be, said Ike McLeese, president and chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and a civilian aide to the U.S. Army’s secretary.
McLeese was around when the federal government shut down in the ’90s.
His expectation today?
“They will be facing a shutdown for as long as it takes for Washington to get some semblance of sanity,” he said, “and figure out that this is not the way to run the federal government.”
S.C. impact of a government shutdown
If Congress fails to act by midnight Monday, the federal government partially will shut down, halting some federal services and putting many federal workers out of jobs. A look at how the shutdown would affect South Carolina:
Essential military personnel would continue working, likely without pay until Congress acts. They then would get retroactive pay.
Non-essential personnel would be furloughed.
Spending authority for new Defense contracts, except for essential activities, would cease.
No new federal contracts would be issued without new appropriations.
National parks, including Congaree National Park in Lower Richland and Fort Sumter in Charleston, likely would close to visitors. All employees, except those essential to protecting property, would be furloughed.
Veterans services could be delayed along with other federal services.
Reach Self at (803)771-8658.