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Government shutdown: ‘The people working just aren’t getting paychecks’

On day eight of the partial government shutdown, more federal workers — just 15 percent of whom work in Washington, D.C. — are notified of whether they will be furloughed or required to work without pay into the new year. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joins Alison Stewart from the capital to discuss the financial impact of the shutdown and how nine major government agencies are affected.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    Joining me now from Washington, D.C., is NPR Congressional reporter Kelsey Snell.

    Hi, Kelsey, thanks for being with us.

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Hi, there, thanks for having me.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    So I think everyone's looking towards next week, January 3 specifically. Explain for our viewers what could happen on January 3 that would affect the shutdown.

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Yeah, the middle of the day is when Congress comes back into session and all of the new members are sworn in, and then over in the House, they will be having a speaker's election and that's when we expect Nancy Pelosi to be elected speaker. and she has said that one of the first things that they will do is, the House will vote to reopen the government. And once they do that it will be completely up to the Senate and President Trump about whether or not they will move forward with that. Once the House votes, the Senate would then have to decide if they're going to vote on the House-passed bill or if they're going to still keep waiting to see what President Trump will support — because that's where we are right now, is waiting to see what President Trump would be willing to sign.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    We can't ignore the politics of this. You have the president's position, the Republicans' position, the Democrats' position. Right now, can you just give me a snapshot of where each stands and how this is being perceived in Washington?

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Well, they are basically exactly where they were, gosh, a month ago maybe. Democrats say that they are not willing to pass any bills that have money to build a wall along the border with Mexico. President is saying that he won't sign any spending bills that don't have that money. Now that puts them in a spot where somebody has to give. One of the options might be for Democrats and for the president to agree on more border security money that doesn't necessarily build the wall, that would kind of give them the flexibility to claim a political victory where Democrats say, 'we didn't directly fund the wall,' and the president can say, 'well, I'm doing things along the border,' maybe building fencing or putting up barbed wire or repairing existing fencing. But in the end, a shutdown looks bad for everybody. The only question now is how long will voters remember that they were upset about a shutdown. We've seen several of them in the past couple of years. And neither party has really paid any political consequences at the ballot box for shutting down the government, which is … completely defies conventional wisdom about shutdowns being bad.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    So what organizations or what departments are the latest to shut down?

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Well, we have been hearing that the EPA is going to be having to scale back a lot of their operations. Only about 15 percent of all federal workers are in D.C. That means 85 percent of people are out in the rest of the country. People like border patrol agents and TSA agents who are out there working without pay as the government's shut down.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    That brings me to a question. I'm wondering what the shutdown is doing to affect American safety. You mentioned TSA and border patrol.

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Yeah, those agents are still working, and there are many assurances coming from all over in the government that American safety will still be protected. What is happening is that the people working just aren't getting paychecks and it is coming around as the first of the month when rent and bills are due. And there are a lot of questions about, you know, how do these people who are missing out on paychecks keep up with the regular demands of life. One of the things that happened earlier this week is that the Office of Personnel Management sent out these draft letters that were supposed to be for employees who are either furloughed or who are working without pay to give to creditors and to, say, their landlord to explain why they can't pay their bills. It was a fairly surprising thing, I think, for a lot of people to see that the government was asking people to kind of barter with their landlords to avoid being penalized for this time when they don't get a paycheck.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    I don't know if it is apocryphal or if it's true, but I understand that some people didn't actually realize that they weren't going to get paid.

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    That tends to happen every once in awhile where people get caught by surprise. Usually, the departments are supposed to let all of their employees know if they would be essential — essential employees are those who would work without pay — or whether they'd be furloughed or not working at all. It's important to point out that Congress already passed a bill that would allow most workers to get back pay once the government reopens, but that really only applies to federal workers — not to people who are contractors working for private companies that are hired by the federal government. Oftentimes, that's people like janitors or security guards, some of the low-wage workers who are working to keep up the daily operations of government buildings.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    NPR's Congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

  • KELSEY SNELL:

    Thank you.

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