Se­lec­tive cuts take a par­ti­san tone

Times Colonist - - World - JULIET LIN­DER­MAN

WASH­ING­TON — The gov­ern­ment shut­down is wreak­ing havoc on many Amer­i­cans: Hun­dreds of thou­sands of U.S. fed­eral em­ploy­ees don’t know when they’ll see their next pay­cheque, and low­in­come peo­ple who rely on the fed­eral safety net worry about whether they’ll make ends meet should the stale­mate in Wash­ing­ton carry on an­other month.

But if you’re a sportsman look­ing to hunt game, a gas com­pany plan­ning to drill off­shore or a tax­payer await­ing your re­fund, you’re in luck: This shut­down won’t af­fect your plans.

All ad­min­is­tra­tions get some lee­way to choose which ser­vices to freeze and which to main­tain when a bud­get stand­off in Wash­ing­ton forces some agen­cies to shut­ter.

But in the se­lec­tive re­open­ing of of­fices, ex­perts say they see a will­ing­ness to cut cor­ners, scrap prior plans and wade into legally du­bi­ous ter­ri­tory to mit­i­gate the pain. Some noted the choices seem tar­geted at shield­ing the Repub­li­can-lean­ing vot­ers whom Trump and his party need to stick with them.

The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is a gov­ern­ment shut­down that some Amer­i­cans might find fi­nan­cially desta­bi­liz­ing and oth­ers might hardly no­tice.

Rus­sell T. Vought, deputy di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, said the over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage from Trump has been “to make this shut­down as pain­less as pos­si­ble, con­sis­tent with the law.”

“We have built on past ef­forts within this ad­min­is­tra­tion not to have the shut­down be used to be weaponized against the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” he said.

Oth­ers say such a strat­egy sug­gests a lack of ur­gency and a will­ing­ness to let the po­lit­i­cal im­passe in Wash­ing­ton drag on in­def­i­nitely.

“The strat­egy seems to be to keep the shut­down in place, not worry about the ef­fect on em­ploy­ees and fur­loughed peo­ple and con­trac­tors, but where the pub­lic might be an­noyed, give a lit­tle,” said Al­ice Rivlin, who led OMB dur­ing the 21-day shut­down in 1996, the pre­vi­ous record­holder for the long­est in his­tory.

That’s a clear dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now, Rivlin said.

“We weren’t try­ing to make it bet­ter. We were try­ing to em­pha­size the pain so it would be over,” she said. “We wanted it to end.

“I’m not con­vinced the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion does.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion last week an­nounced that the IRS will is­sue tax re­funds dur­ing the shut­down, cir­cum­vent­ing a 2011 de­ci­sion bar­ring the agency from dis­tribut­ing re­funds un­til the Trea­sury De­part­ment is funded. The Na­tional Trea­sury Em­ploy­ees Union filed a law­suit, ar­gu­ing its work­ers are be­ing un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally forced to re­turn to work with­out pay.

Some agen­cies are find­ing cre­ative ways to fund ser­vices they want to re­store. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­pha­sized con­tin­ued use of pub­lic lands, and par­tic­u­larly for hunters and oil and gas de­vel­op­ers, an­ger­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal groups. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, us­ing funds left­over from 2018, an­nounced it will di­rect dozens of wildlife refuges to re­turn staffers to work, en­sur­ing planned ac­tiv­i­ties on those lands, in­clud­ing or­ga­nized hunts, con­tinue.

The IRS is us­ing user fees to re­store the in­come-ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­gram, used by mort­gage lenders to con­firm the in­come of a bor­rower and con­sid­ered a crit­i­cal tool for the bank­ing in­dus­try.

Af­ter na­tional parks were left open but un­staffed, caus­ing da­m­age to del­i­cate ecosys­tems, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice an­nounced it would take “an ex­tra­or­di­nary step” and use vis­i­ta­tion fees to staff some of the ma­jor parks. And de­spite the shut­down, the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment is con­tin­u­ing work re­lated to drilling ef­forts in Alaska.

The fo­cus on ser­vices that reach ru­ral vot­ers, in­flu­en­tial in­dus­tries and vot­ers’ pock­et­books is in­tended to pro­tect Repub­li­cans from blow­back, said Barry An­der­son, who served as as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get from 1988 to 1998. Dur­ing the 1996 shut­down, An­der­son said, he and oth­ers met each day to re­view which of­fices and ser­vices should be deemed es­sen­tial. He said tax re­funds never made the cut.

“A gov­ern­ment agency may em­ploy ser­vices in ad­vance of ap­pro­pri­a­tions only when there’s a rea­son­able con­nec­tion be­tween the func­tions be­ing per­formed and the safety of hu­man life or pro­tec­tion of prop­erty,” he said. “How does is­su­ing tax re­funds fall un­der either of those cat­e­gories? It’s not a hu­man life or prop­erty is­sue. I don’t know the proper word: sur­prised, aghast, flab­ber­gasted.

“This,” he said, “is to keep Repub­li­can se­na­tors’ phones silent.”

Mean­while, hun­dreds of fed­eral con­tracts for low-in­come Amer­i­cans re­ceiv­ing hous­ing as­sis­tance are ex­pir­ing. The De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment is un­able to re­new them and has in­stead di­rected pri­vate own­ers to dip into their re­serves to cover short­falls.

The Capi­tol Dome is seen through a sky­light in the Capi­tol Vis­i­tors Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of fed­eral em­ploy­ees don’t know when they’ll see their next pay­cheque, and low-in­come Amer­i­cans worry about whether they will be able to make ends meet.

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