Himes: Likely shutdown ‘the most predictable disaster that ever happened’

Washington – To Adam Puccino, a mason who works at Naval Submarine Base in New London, the possibility of a government shutdown is just the latest in a long string of bad news coming out of Washington.

“All this stuff with Congress seems to be going on over and over again,” Puccino said. “I’m burned out.

Puccino, 48, would be one of thousands of the Navy’s civilian employees who would be laid off if Congress fails to come to an agreement on a budget by Oct. 1.

A shutdown would affect many in Connecticut – from the would-be traveler who would have to delay arranging a new passport to the applicant for Social Security who would have to wait until the government got back to work.

But no one would be more directly impacted than a government worker like Puccino.

Government workers have not had a raise in years and they’ve been subject to furloughs, or days off without pay, since across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester were implemented earlier this year.

“We are still playing catch-up because of the sequester,” Puccino said of the family budget. “If we’re laid off, you are looking at a lot of foreclosures – including one on my house.”

The Pentagon has ordered local commanders to determine which civilian employees are necessary to keep on the job for the protection of life and property.

Members of the Armed Services will stay on the job, as will civilian employees deemed essential to operations at the base. But nobody, whether they are working or not, will get paid. although those who work will receive iou’s.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that 1,914 active duty and 2,625 civilian military personnel in Connecticut would stop receiving paychecks if there’s a shutdown.

Puccino would likely be sent home because his job isn’t considered essential. He said the shuttering of government, even if it’s short-lived, could prompt many to abandon federal jobs.

“We worked for the government so we could get a steady paycheck and good benefits,” he said. “But now it’s all up in the air.”

The last times the government shut down, in 1995 and 1996, Congress approved a law that allowed federal workers to receive lost pay retroactively.

But those workers suffered tough economic times in the interim.

Robert Faulise, president of the National Association of Government Employees local that represents civilian workers at the submarine base, said the prospect of a government shutdown would be “devastating” to Naval operations and to the financial health of base workers.

Furloughed workers have already had a hard time making ends meet, Faulise said, many were forced to take advantage of new food shelters set  this summer up by United Way.

Faulise said the Navy had a “taste” of how hard it is to keep the base running when its civilian employees take just one day off a week. “We found out it was very difficult,” he said. “A shutdown would have a crippling effect.”

A government shutdown is a real possibility because the House last week approved a continuing resolution, or temporary budget bill, that would defund the Affordable Care Act. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that bill is “dead, dead” in the Senate.

Reid plans a procedural vote on the House bill Wednesday. Then Reid plans to hold a vote on the continuing resolution – with an amendment stripping out the defunding of the ACA – Friday or Saturday.

That bill would go back to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At that point, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will have to choose whether to incur the wrath of tea party Republicans by allowing a vote on the Senate’s plan, or allow the government to shut down just after midnight next Monday.

Democrats are eager to get out the word about a shutdown’s impact because they think the GOP will bear the brunt of the blame.

“A handful of Washington Republicans are being awfully cavalier with the livelihoods of seniors, military personnel, veterans, small businesses and families across our state,” Murphy said. “But this isn’t a game, and it’s time for these members to acknowledge that.”

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is among those Democrats who think a shutdown is likely.

“This is the most predictable disaster that ever happened,” Himes said.

Other impacts of a government shutdown would be felt by those applying for first time veteran’s benefits who, like new Social Security applicants, won’t have their applications processed.

Social Security and veterans’ benefit checks will continue going to those already in the system,  but those payments could be slowed.

Homebuyers hoping for a federally backed mortgage will have to wait. But the U.S. Postal Service will continue to deliver the mail, although some of the agency’s employees will be furloughed.

The State Department will stop processing passport applications and renewals – unless there is an emergency. But operations at embassies will continue.

Those planning vacations to national parks will have to scrap them because they will be closed.

Farmers will discover that many U.S. Agriculture Department programs will have closed shop. And the grant process for small businesses, defense contractors and medical research will be closed down during a shutdown.

Jeff Small, associate vice president for research at the University of Connecticut Medical Center, said the center has been holding “fire drills” to cope with a potential closure of the federal government since 2011, when a shutdown loomed because of partisan fighting in Congress over the budget and debt limit.

“We’ve been down this road before,” he said. “So we hold our breath and hope things get straightened out in Washington.”

The health center receives about $48.5 million a year in direct grants from the federal government, most of the money from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Small said he’s concerned that grant applications will languish and current grants might be cut back as agencies like HHS use any available funds for other purposes.

The shutdown would occur as the Affordable Care Act’s state insurance exchanges open for business Oct. 1.

The ACA relies primarily – but not exclusively – on mandatory spending, which can’t be hurt by Congress’ lack of action. Medicare, Social Security and food stamps are also protected.

Connecticut’s health care exchange, called Access Health CT, and 13 other state exchanges have already been funded by millions of dollars from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal government has collected money from sources of money independent of Congress, including new fees from insurers, to operate exchanges in those states that did not want to set up their own exchanges or needed help from Washington to do so.

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