The Government Shutdown Hits

Affordable Care Act takes effect as Tea Party throttles government

Ted Cruz gets his wish (kinda): The Federal government goes into shutdown mode, but Obamacare is still happening.
Ted Cruz gets his wish (kinda): The Federal government goes into shutdown mode, but Obamacare is still happening.

If you want to visit the LBJ Museum today, or sort your taxes out, forget it. NASA's Houston facility, once the pride of Texas, is on a skeleton crew. The Smithsonian panda cam is offline. Hell, you can't even wait it out at Big Bend. That's closing too. The Tea Party's shutdown of the U.S. federal government is in effect.

After Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and the congressional Tea Party deliberately sabotaged the federal budget negotiation process, this morning the nation woke up to see what Grover Norquist was dreaming about when he said that he wanted to make government so small he could drown it in a bath tub.

What happened, in simple terms, is that the House Republican caucus refused to pass a continuing resolution, maintaining funding for the Federal government, that concurs with the Senate. A CR is not a complete budget: It's just an extension, designed to allow negotiating time. By refusing to pass a clean CR, the Tea Party has effectively walked away from the table.

Quick note. Just so we're clear, this does nothing to reach the GOP's stated goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That took effect today, so no matter what else happens, kids and people with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied health insurance.

In some ways, this all looks like a Tea Party wet dream. The U.S. government, the nasty bad feds who say you have to enforce health and safety rules, or regulate the stock market, has gone bye-bye for a while.

Today's big Republican talking point (aside, of course, from how their attempt at extortion from the Obama administration is actually just negotiation) is that 80% of federal employees will still be reporting for work today. That headline number is nominally true. However, a large portion of them will be effectively working for free.

Here's how that works: The only Federal employees affected are those whose salaries come out of the discretionary spending part of the budget. However, they are classified as either "excepted" and "non-excepted." Excepted employees are those whose job is considered so essential to the operation of the nation that they must come in to work anyway. Then there are the non-excepted, who are now on an unpaid furlough.

But, and here's the big coda: The excepted employees don't get a paycheck this week either. There's still no money to pay excepted employee salaries, so they'll be coming in for free, and will only be paid for their hours worked during the shutdown when this whole mess is solved.

Of course, this all comes after many agencies were forced to furlough staff over the Summer due to the sequester: Another GOP "negotiating tactic."

And a reminder. Just so we're clear, this does nothing to reach the GOP's stated goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That took effect today, so no matter what else happens, you'll get access to preventative care like mammograms and colonoscopies, with no out-of-pocket costs.

So let's look at, say, the military. Congress did manage to pass a last-minute measure to cover the pay of the 1.4 million active service personnel. However, roughly half of the Department of Defense's 800,000 civilian employees will be sent home, and the other half will be undergoing the civilian equivalent of stoploss.

The decision to protect active personnel pay was, in many ways, a sop to the myth that U.S. politicians always have soldiers' best interests at heart. But the reality is that soldiers are citizens too, and so dismantling and defunding the agencies that protect the rest of us affects them too.

Quick note. Just so we're clear, this does nothing to reach the GOP's stated goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That took effect today, so no matter what else happens, relatives of those service personnel earning less than $45,960 will get Federal assistance with their insurance costs.

It's a simple game of numbers. Take the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading commission, the agency responsible for policing. Under its shutdown plan, only 28 of its 680 employees are excepted. This is the agency that regulates the complicated and dangerous world of derivatives trading, something that even the eternally bullish Forbes calls "the world's scariest story".

If you think that doesn't affect you, how about the Department of Education. According to its shutdown plan, only 212 of its 3,983 full time employees will be reporting to work this week. That's 5%. Fortunately, most of the programs that they operate are on funding autopilot at this time of year, so schools should not see any immediate impact.

How about law enforcement? Only 30 of the 345 staff at the U.S. Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network are at work today. Over at the Department of Justice, only 96,300 of the total of 114,486 full time employees are excepted. That means 18,186 people involved in federal law enforcement sat on their hands.

The Federal Courts have a grand total of 10 days of operating cash in the kitty. After that, they will require special dispensation from the Department of the Treasury to keep paying staff.

There's already an immediate effect. In its shutdown guide, the DOJ instructs prosecutors "to approach the courts and request that active [civil] cases, except for those in which postponement would compromise to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property, be postponed until funding is available."

Quick note. Just so we're clear, this does nothing to reach the GOP's stated goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That took effect today, so no matter what else happens, there will be no lifetime limits on coverage.

As for NASA, there are currently only 600 of its 18,000 staff at work, and that's only because there are two U.S. astronauts currently on the International Space Station. But if they come home before the shutdown ends, then mission control in Houston closes too.

Some agencies fare better than other. Take, for example, the USA Food Safety and Inspection Services. That agency, which is responsible for making sure you don't die of E-Coli, will be able to keep 87% of its staff working. But in doing so, they effectively create three levels of employees.

There are those whose pay doesn't come out of discretionary spending: In this case a grand total of eight staff who will keep their paycheck.

Then there are 8,407 excepted employees, who will be turning up for work, but won't get a paycheck.

And then there are the 1,218 workers who will just be sat at home, furloughed and panicking about what comes next (and how long before some Tea Partier suggests that, if we could do without them during the shutdown, did we ever really need them to begin with?)

So now all eyes are on Cruz and his wrecking crew. How long can they grandstand and endanger people's lives?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Federal Government, Congress, Tea Party, Obamacare, Shutdown, Ted Cruz, NASA, Department of Education, Department of Justice, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Smithsonian, Big Bend

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