Federal offices to shut Saturday unless Congress acts quickly

by Tommy Grant

Some veterans support services and other federal programs will begin shutting down Saturday morning unless congressional lawmakers can pass another last-minute budget extension by midnight on Friday.

Per the Office of Management and Budget, two business days before funds expire, agencies are to notify employees of the status of appropriations. A Biden administration official said initial communication to agencies about lapse planning began Wednesday.

Senate lawmakers are poised to pass a budget extension on Thursday, funding all government operations through March 1 and some — including the Department of Defense — through March 8. The legislation still only allows spending at fiscal 2023 levels, limiting new program starts and equipment purchases. But it would prevent a partial government shutdown prompted by an appropriations lapse.

“No one back home wants to see a shutdown or chaos, so let’s quickly pass this and work to finalize serious appropriations bills, free of partisan poison pills, that protect key investments in our country’s future,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement on the budget plan Monday.

House leaders have said they will take up the measure ahead of the Friday night deadline, but the timing — and support for that — remains unclear.

Far-right members of the House GOP caucus have said they do not want any more short-term budget measures. At the same time, other Republicans are trying to steer away from massive omnibus packages, signaling perhaps the original intent behind the two-step continuing resolution.

Should another extension fail, funding for the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs would all end, forcing a series of closures at each of those agencies. Some military construction funding would also be impacted.

Shutdown impact

Most VA operations were funded through advance appropriations approved last year, meaning the effects of a budget lapse would be limited.

In a statement, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said if Congress misses the Friday deadline “there would be no impact on veteran healthcare, burials would continue at VA national cemeteries, and VA would continue to process and deliver benefits to veterans, including compensation, pension, education, and housing benefits.”

However, most outreach services would shutter, he said. Public-facing regional offices would be closed, as would career counseling and transition assistance programs. Cemetery grounds maintenance would be postponed until a budget deal is reached.

About 4% of the VA staff — around 18,000 VA staffers — could be furloughed during a partial shutdown, although exact numbers would depend on what other funding is available to department planners.

At the Department of Agriculture, about 59% of the agency’s 97,000 employees would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. Certain functions funded by the Inflation Reduction Act or other legislation would be allowed to continue, like the Farm Service Agency’s loan program and parts of the Forest Service’s fire suppression. Regulatory food inspections to maintain public health are also deemed critical functions. Other administrative, research and clerical work would cease.

About 18,000 Department of Transportation workers would face furloughs, equally roughly a third of the workforce, according to the agency’s shutdown plan on file with OMB. However, sub-agencies paid out of the Highway Trust Fund or Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are not solely reliant on annual appropriations and thus may continue operating.

Further, the Federal Aviation Administration would retain about 63% of its workforce to maintain air traffic control, though there could still be disruptions to travel if employees must work without pay. Aviation policymaking, bringing on new air traffic controllers, and facility inspections would be halted.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy would continue to operate on funding other than annual appropriations in the name of national security.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, a largely public-facing agency that assists with housing and rental assistance, would close its headquarters and field offices if funds run out. The majority — about 80% — of employees are barred from working during a shutdown. The department said in its plan that monthly subsidy programs and fair housing activities could be impacted severely by a shutdown.

Much of the Department of Energy’s funding is multi-year or “no year.” But if available funds are exhausted by a lengthy shutdown, that could stop any non-essential work and lead to subsequent furloughs. As of August, the department said 1,040 employees are fully or partially funded by multi-year appropriations and could keep working even if the department’s base funds are depleted. The National Nuclear Security Administration would continue to safeguard nuclear reactors and other scientific equipment.

The Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works division also receives some funding under the Energy-Water appropriations bill. In any case, operations to secure hydropower plants, commercial locks and flood control projects would continue with minimal staffing.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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