Washington – What would be the impact in Connecticut of a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security?
Depends on who you ask.
Congressional Republicans have minimized the impact of a potential shutdown, which will occur if Congress does not approve a new DHS budget by Feb. 27. That budget is currently stalemated because the GOP has added language to a $40 billion funding bill that would keep DHS running. The Republican provision, to which Democrats object, would block President Obama’s new immigration initiatives.
The Democrats, including Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, say a DHS shutdown would leave the nation in dire circumstances, perhaps even vulnerable to new terrorist attacks.
“The Republicans seem to care more about stopping immigrant dreams than stopping ISIS terrorists,” Blumenthal said at a press conference with Murphy near Coast Guard Station New London last month.
The truth of the impact of a shutdown is probably between the two partisan extremes.
DHS Director Jeh Johnson says a shutdown would result in the furlough of about 30,000 department workers, mostly administrative personnel, while keeping another 200,000 on the job.
The “essential” employees who would remain working include 40,000 border patrol and customs agents; 50,000 airport screeners; 13,000 immigration law enforcement officers; 40,000 active-duty Coast Guard members; and 4,000 Secret Service agents.
Most of those workers would not receive pay, but some would because their agencies are funded through fees and don’t depend on congressional appropriations. One such agency is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is responsible for much of Obama’s new immigration changes.
Coast Guard stations in Connecticut would continue to operate, although non-essential work would be scuttled, new hires halted and paychecks stopped.
The Coast Guard Academy in New London would remain open, with most of its employees working without pay and some staff who are not “essential” personnel placed on furlough.
“Unlike other armed forces, the Coast Guard Academy is the primary officer accession program for the Coast Guard, and any delays in the curriculum have major impacts on officer assignments and continuity of Coast Guard operations,” said DHS spokesman Justin Greenberg.
DHS officials say forcing departmental employees to work without pay “would erode employee morale and cause unnecessary anxiety for frontline personnel and their families.”
“The vast majority of our personnel – including front-line operational and support personnel at Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the U.S. Coast Guard – rely on biweekly paychecks to support themselves and their families; if DHS does not receive funding, these employees would not receive biweekly paychecks,” DHS said in a statement.
Those workers are likely to receive back pay eventually since Congress has routinely approved retroactive compensation after other government shutdowns.
FEMA hit hardest
The biggest impact of the shutdown would be on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
About 85 percent of its personnel would be furloughed, including all personnel involved in administering grants to state and local governments, fire departments and others to help them prepare for or respond to various threats and emergencies.
The release of those grants has already been stalled by the lack of a permanent DHS budget. The department has been functioning through the repeated extension of a previous budget.
“Our application process for grants should have started in October. It is now February, and we still haven’t been able to issue new grants,” said Rafael Lemaitre, FEMA director of public affairs.
Lemaitre also said, “Lurching along with temporary funding, or no funding, prevents us from doing our part to keep the American people safe.”
The federal flood insurance program, which is administered by FEMA, would continue uninterrupted because it is financed by fees.
Training programs, however, would end. As an example, Lemaitre said three first responders from Connecticut — two from Middletown and one from Colchester — would not be able to attend FEMA training sessions scheduled for next month.
DHS grants to Connecticut aimed at protecting certain targets from terrorist attacks are also threatened.
Connecticut received nearly $4 million from DHS last year to purchase surveillance equipment, weapons, and advanced training for law enforcement personnel in order to heighten security.
In addition, Connecticut employers would face a new challenge in hiring employees because the E-Verify program run by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, would close down. E-Verify is a voluntary, Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of a prospective employee to work in the United States.
Obama announced a new cyber security program this week that would fuse traditional cyber-defense methods with real-time data analytics. But that program would be put on hold if there’s a shutdown. And security analysts say existing cyber security defenses are likely to be weakened, even as the nation suffers from a rash of cyber attacks, including the massive hacking of Anthem.
The likelihood of a DHS shutdown, meanwhile, increases with each passing day.
The House approved a DHS funding bill, with the immigration riders, but Senate Democrats, including Blumenthal and Murphy, blocked that bill three times last week.
Although the GOP has a majority in the Senate, it lacks the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward.
Democrats and Obama administration officials are insisting on a “clean” bill, free of immigration riders. The president has threatened to veto a bill with immigration riders if it is sent to him.
“I am on Capitol Hill now virtually every working day talking to Democrats and Republicans about the importance of a fully funded Department of Homeland Security in these times in particular,” said DHS chief Johnson. “Let’s not forget that the Department of Homeland Security interfaces with the American public more than any other department in our government at airports and at ports.”