A SELECTIVE SHUTDOWN?
Some experts say funding choices seem designed to shield GOP-leaning voters
WASHINGTON — The government shutdown is wreaking havoc on many Americans: Hundreds of thousands of federal employees don’t know when they’ll see their next paycheck, and low-income 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 Republicanleaning voters whom Trump and his party need to stick with them.
The cumulative effect is a government shutdown — now officially the longest in U.S. history — that some Americans may find financially destabilizing and others may 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 earlier this 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 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.
Trump has refused to sign spending bills for nine of the 15 Cabinet-level departments until Congress approves his request for $5.7 billion in funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have refused. The president initially said he would be “proud” to own the partial shutdown, but he quickly shifted blame onto Democratic leaders and has flirted with taking some extraordinary measures to find money for the wall. Although most Republicans have stood by the president, others have expressed discomfort with the strategy.
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.”
President Donald Trump attends a roundtable discussion on border security on Friday at the White House.