Federal Government Shutdown; Budget Talks
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KWAME HOLMAN: Washington’s federal workplaces were a study in contrast this rainy, first official work day of the new year. Most of the 6,000 workers at the Small Business Administration are considered non-emergency, and the agency’s main office was a lonely place this morning. But a skeleton staff of the Commerce Department’s 36,000 employees did trickle in to work. They are among 1/2 million federal workers performing duties at the nine major departments and two dozen agencies affected by the shutdown. They’re required to work even though funding for their jobs is held up by a budget impasse now in its third week. But Commerce Undersecretary Everett Ehrlich is concerned about the work that’s not being done. He says going without the myriad economic aid that the Commerce Department normally collects will reverberate throughout the economy.
EVERETT EHRLICH, Secretary, Commerce Department: And I think that economic actors ought to have facts about the economy. It’s our job to produce them. As those facts become more and more distant and more and more delayed, our economic actors, firms and households and people who trade stocks and bonds and the like, are all moving away from reality. They’re relying more on guesswork, and that means an economy that’s more volatile and less reliable in the long run, and it means that more of our decisions are made on a smaller and smaller base of information. That can’t be good for economic activity.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Labor Department too is operating with a tiny fraction of its workers. In a fifth floor hallway of Labor’s main building pension plan reports from thousands of private companies await government processing. The Department said 3500 investigations of potential pension and health plan fraud are on “hold.” The Wage & Hour Administration is not enforcing most fair labor practices. And only the most egregious worker safety complaints are being investigated. On Capitol Hill this afternoon, Sec. Donna Shalala took personal charge of enumerating what’s being left undone by the lack of funding for her Department of Health & Human Services.
DONNA SHALALA, Secretary, Health & Human Services: Today, when states normally would expect to receive their federal money for services ranging from child care to elder care, from disease prevention to violence prevention, what they will get instead is an empty sack and the devil’s choice of either cutting services, like their meals programs, or laying off employees, or taking money from other state programs and creating a cash flow problem there.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the list of government activities crippled by the lack of funding continues. The Environmental Protection Agency says clean-up operations at half of its twelve hundred Superfund hazardous waste sites are to be halted today. The EPA says it will use its few remaining funds to continue cleaning up eighty sites that potentially pose an immediate health risk. But one spin-off of the budget battle may be welcomed by the public. Because of the impasse, the Internal Revenue Service has stopped collecting three airline taxes, including a 10 percent ticket tax that brought in $15 million a day.