A host of government agencies remain shut down — and are likely to stay unfunded at least through the end of the year — sidelining hundreds of thousands of federal workers as Congress and the White House remained deadlocked over President Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall with Mexico.
For the first time since the partial shutdown began early Saturday, the House and Senate returned Thursday afternoon to conduct legislative business. Yet within minutes of lawmakers gaveling into session in their respective chambers, they adjourned until next week, all but guaranteeing the shutdown would continue into 2019.
None of the top four party leaders in the House and Senate — Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York — were present, a sign that negotiations were either going nowhere or were not taking place at all.
“I think it’s obvious that until the president decides he can sign something, or something is presented to him, that we are where we are,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the lone senator who came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to preside over the brief legislative session.
Trump remained adamant on Thursday he wants the wall.
“The President and his team stayed in Washington over Christmas hoping to negotiate a deal that would stop the dangerous crisis on the border, protect American communities, and re-open the government. The Democrats decided to go home,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Thursday.
“The only rational conclusion is that the Democrat party is openly choosing to keep our government closed to protect illegal immigrants rather than the American people,” she said.
“The President does not want the government to remain shut down,” Sanders continued, “but he will not sign a proposal that does not first prioritize our county’s safety and security.”
Lawmakers left Washington on Saturday afternoon without an agreement to keep nine Cabinet departments and several smaller agencies running. While the House had passed a measure that includes an additional $5.7 billion for border security, per Trump’s request, Senate Republicans determined they didn’t have the votes for that bill.
McConnell resisted Trump’s call to launch the so-called “nuclear option” and lower the threshold necessary to advance legislation to 51 votes, which would virtually assure the Senate could pass the House bill. Instead, McConnell chided Democrats and what he called the “open-borders, far left” for resisting what he said was a common sense measure.
Senate Republicans hoped the White House could reach an agreement with Senate Democrats, who are adamantly opposed to giving Trump any new money for the border wall that he promised as a presidential candidate would be paid for by Mexico.
High-level talks to end the impasse last week ended with no agreement, however. Schumer huddled with Vice President Mike Pence and said Democrats would back money for border security, but not a wall. He noted that the Senate had earlier approved a spending bill without the wall money, but Republicans reversed course and began to demand more wall dollars after being “hounded by the radical voices of the hard right.”
Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump had said earlier this month he’d take the “mantle” as the person responsible for the shutdown, but immediately after the shutdown began started to blame Democrats for obstruction, accusing them of not caring about drugs and gang violence.
As Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the White House, remain at a standstill, more than 800,000 federal employees will be out of work, according to an estimate from Senate Democrats.
Agencies losing funding in a shutdown include the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce and Justice, along with Homeland Security, though many of its law enforcement agents will keep working because they’re considered “essential.”
Other agencies, including the Pentagon, Health and Human Services, Education and energy and water programs, have been funded through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2019.
Most federal employees who perform high-profile, essential duties for officially unfunded agencies— such as the Transportation Security Agency officers manning airport checkpoints — will stay on the job, even as their paychecks are suspended. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election will continue.
Each federal agency develops its own plan for a shutdown, following guidance issued by the government during past closures.
The plans, coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget, detail which government activities are put on hold and which employees are considered essential and must report to work, even if their pay is delayed.
Employees deemed essential are required to continue working, but they’ll do so without pay. Democrats estimated that accounts for more than 420,000 workers, including federal law enforcement and correctional officers, FBI agents, Forest Service firefighters and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
Another 380,000 people are working, also without pay, including staffers with NASA and the National Park Service.
Though parks stay open, the administration in January noted that parks must “notify visitors that the NPS will cease providing visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities and roads maintenance (including plowing), campground reservation and check-in/check-out services.”
Critics said the decision to keep the parks open is dangerous — and a bid to downplay the real effects of a shutdown.
“They’re trying to diminish the impact of the bad press around a shutdown by keeping parks half-open, which is really the worst of both worlds,” said Jonathan Asher, government relations manager of conservation funding at The Wilderness Society.
He said that while it’s preferable to keep parks and monuments open, “if we’re opening our public lands without having the proper safeguards in place for both the visitors and the resources then we’re creating really dangerous situations.”
Among other anticipated effects cited in an analysis by Senate Democrats:
Every local and state farm service center are closing and Farm Service Agency staff will not be available for consultations.
Small businesses will not have access to the Small Business Administration’s federally assisted loans and technical assistance, as SBA guarantees to back loans will freeze.
The Federal Housing Administration will experience delays in loan processing and approvals, meaning that people trying to buy a new home or refinance a FHA-insured mortgage will be put on standby.
Cities, counties, and states will have trouble moving forward with Community Development Block Grant projects. Such projects are crucial to urban revival and upkeep.
Civil litigation, payments to victims, and training for state and local law enforcement will be frozen.
Payments to public housing agencies will be delayed, potentially delaying maintenance and emergency repairs.
There could be costs associated with the lack of wages, particularly for small businesses that rely on federal workers or communities that depend on national parks for tourist dollars. The loss of pay during a 16-day shutdown in 2013 triggered an estimated 2 to 4 percent drop in spending among federal workers, who put off dining out, hiring babysitters and other expenses, according to a 2014 Stanford University study.
The National Park Service during a 2013 shutdown turned away millions to more than 400 parks and national monuments and estimated $500 million was lost in visitor spending nationwide.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to keep most of its employees on the job with enough reserve funds to keep the agency open through Friday.
Stan Meiburg, a former EPA acting deputy administrator under President Barack Obama and former EPA deputy regional administrator for the region that covers much of the South, has experienced several shutdowns and said they are always unsettling.
“It’s extraordinarily disruptive while it’s happening, and then when you come back it takes a few weeks to dig out from everything,” he said.
Former officials worry much of the agency’s work could potentially come to a halt, including cleanup at toxic waste sites. Emergency response is always a concern, but should be covered, said Meiburg.
A group that represents public universities warned that the shutdown would affect the schools’ ability to conduct research because the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey would be among the agencies affected.
“We know from past shutdowns that agencies won’t answer their phones or check their emails, and typically their websites go dark too.,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. He said that could leave agency-funded scientists “in a lurch.”