After 19 days, the federal government shutdown has sent bureaucrats scrambling.
The partial federal government shutdown, now 19 days and counting, has sent bureaucrats in Washington state scrambling to keep programs afloat for as long as they can, but those officials warn that the acute impacts of the national impasse will manifest in the coming weeks, threatening some people’s lives and livelihoods, and annoying others.
Many federal workers, of course, are already dealing with the anticipation of missing paychecks and being short on rent or grocery bills.
But other, diverse and more limited effects are beginning to pile up for those who use government services, from gates shuttered to skiers at Mount Rainier National Park, to brewers seeking labels for their craft IPAs and American Indians wanting to use their treaty-required health-care services.
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Federal court employees will continue to work and operate the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington normally, said clerk William McCool Tuesday, but without pay.
“We’re mandated by the Constitution to perform the duties of the court. Our judges and our court staff will perform those duties whether or not we have funding,” he said. Most court employees will receive their last paycheck on Jan. 25, for the pay period that ends on the 18th, he said.
Meanwhile, McCool said each federal court has been “scrubbing its accounts” to send funds back to the federal judiciary’s administrative office in Washington, D.C., to redistribute and “eke out funding” for as long as possible.
“Demoralizing is an accurate word to describe the impact on our federal court employees,” McCool said.
The Seattle Indian Health Board, which serves about 6,000 people each year, receives about 25 percent of its operating budget from the U.S. Department of Interior. If the government remains shut down for a month, “we will have to implement our furlough and layoff plan,” said Chief Executive Officer Esther Lucero.
About 50 of 180 of the health-board employees could be affected, she said. Programs like the board’s Thunderbird Treatment Center, a residential facility that provides 65 beds and helps people with substance abuse, its elder program and its Tradition Indians Medicines program, could be interrupted, Lucero said.
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“I find it ironic that the funding for that treatment center is threatened when the president has coined the opioid epidemic as a national crisis,” Lucero said.
The Traditional Indian Medicines program, which features activities like sweat lodges, talking circles and drum classes are “proven to have significant impact to supporting people with sobriety,” Lucero said.
She fears disruption could be consequential.
“If part of their recovery is to have a weekly sweat lodge and suddenly you don’t have it, their recovery process is interrupted,” she added. “This is something where you could trigger relapse.”
Lucero said it was important to remember the federal government’s legal obligations.
“American Indian people gave up land and we were promised these benefits,” Lucero said. “These benefits come from treaty rights. To me this is beyond an appropriations misstep. This is a breach of treaty.”
Federal housing voucher
Local tenants receiving federal financial assistance could be facing a tough road. Funding for the Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, and other federal rental assistance programs administered by the King County Housing Authority will continue through February, said Housing Authority spokeswoman Rhonda Rosenberg. After that, the money runs out, potentially leaving thousands of rental-assistance recipients in the lurch.
“We will take whatever steps we can to meet our obligations on an ongoing basis to assure that rent payments aren’t interrupted,” Rosenberg said Tuesday. “But obviously if the shutdown goes long-term this will present a challenge.”
Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver, Washington, is less than 2 miles from the Oregon border, but owner Bryan Shull worries he soon won’t be able to sell his beer to Washington’s neighbors.
Before selling a new label of beer in another state, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau must approve of it. That agency is closed. A backlog of label requests, Shull assumes, is building up for its federal workers when they return to their jobs.
Shull’s business, which specializes in cans of unique, small-batch brews, aims its products at bottle shops in the Portland area.
“For cans, we do sell about half to the Oregon market,” he said. “Now, he’ll have to find somewhere in state to sell.”
Worse, his well-honed schedule of brewing, packaging and distribution now faces uncertainty.
“Most of our beers are hazy IPAs and stuff. They don’t sit on shelves. We want them to move. That tight schedule is very important to maintain. This has blown our schedule to pieces,” Shull said.
The American Astronomical Society is holding its 233rd meeting, sometimes called the Super Bowl of astronomy, in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. About 3,200 astronomers are expected to attend the gathering that began Sunday, said spokesman Rick Fienberg.
Fienberg estimates about 10-15 percent — federal scientists — could not come because of the shutdown. He said the conference, which ends Thursday, had to cancel several events due to federal workers’ absence, such as the popular NASA town hall. Some session chairs didn’t show up. Some exhibitors had to find substitutes.
The society could owe penalties for hotel cancellations, he said, but registrations were paid in advance and not refundable.
“There’s definitely being some money wasted. Registrations have been paid and aren’t going to be used,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of people made nonrefundable airline reservations and I’m sure there are other financial impacts they haven’t even thought about.”
Fienberg said it was a “big and dynamic meeting” even with some important people missing.
Part of the value of the conference is gathering so many smart people in one room, he said. There’s harm when a portion can’t attend, he said.
“There’s an incalculable opportunity cost to the shutdown. We can’t measure it. We don’t know how many productive, fruitful interactions aren’t taking place,” he said. “There are undoubtedly fewer than there would be otherwise.”
Sound Transit funding
Sound Transit hasn’t been directly affected by the shutdown yet, but the agency cannot get federal reimbursements for spending while the government is shut down, spokesman Geoff Patrick said. Sound Transit also needs Federal Transit Administration staff to review and approve documentation for projects that receive federal funding, like the light-rail line to Lynnwood. A lengthy shutdown could slow the agency’s progress.
“As a federal grantee, Sound Transit is very concerned with the government shutdown and hopes that it ends immediately,” Patrick said in an email.
Plenty of snow has been falling at Mount Rainier National Park, but skiers and snowshoers won’t be enjoying it. The park closed Sunday to vehicles until further notice, according to its website. The National Park Service had allowed low-elevation portions of the park to remain open with limited services, but shuttered its lower gate after lowland snow.
Most Olympic National Park roads and campgrounds, including the popular Hurricane Ridge Road, will remain closed during the shutdown. No visitor services are available at North Cascades National Park, but it remains open.
National Weather Service
All but one employee at the National Weather Service in Seattle has continued working since the shutdown, but none of them are being paid, said Chris Burke, a meteorologist who spoke to The Seattle Times as a member of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
Burke worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The office, staffed now by 26 people, is open every hour of every day, he said.
The shutdown has made little things difficult. Some National Weather Service equipment requires almost constant maintenance, he said. During the shutdown, permission to spend money to fix issues requires approval beyond managers in Seattle.
“You have to get all these permissions and justify what you do, even the most minor expenses,” Burke said, like buying gas. “We’ve had real trouble doing basic maintenance of our equipment out in the field.”
During the shutdown, wind gauges have gone days without being fixed, Burke said. Managers had to beg to get permission for repairs on a coastal radar system that was leaking oil.
The weather service owns and monitors about 20 rain gauges. When they fill with rain, the gauges need to be dumped out. Many of the gauges are in remote areas, like U.S. Forest Service land. Other federal agencies monitor and maintain the low-tech gauges. But those federal workers are furloughed.
“So we have one guy in our office driving all around Western Washington to the rain gauges and doing it himself,” Burke said. “Up to three hours away for 10 minutes of work.”
Seattle Times reporters Vernal Coleman and David Gutman contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the King County Housing Authority.