More notes from the shutdown

What is and what may be.

On day four of the federal government shutdown, we are reminded of the many ways in which federal services are threaded throughout ordinary civilian lives. Jog on a federal trail? It’s probably closed. Waiting for the federal jobs numbers that are released on the first Friday of every month? Sorry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics staffers who compile that report are furloughed. Want to call your member of Congress to complain about the shutdown? Your call may or may not be answered, depending on whether the office is open or closed. Congress is still in session, yet the government is shut down, and congressional offices have responded in different ways. Some offices sent staff home; some are operating with a reduced number of staff; and some appear to be operating as usual. For example, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk's offices in Illinois and Washington, D.C., are fully staffed while Sen. Dick Durbin has closed his offices. The offices of U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., are open in D.C. and New York. Offices of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., are open with reduced staff. The offices of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., are closed.

That’s “what is.” In the category of “what may be,” we here at the APA Federal Budget Blog are no better at prognosticating than others, but we read a lot, so we can share a bit of distilled conventional wisdom with you. Currently, there are enough votes in the Republican caucus, when added to the likely number of Democratic votes, to pass a continuing resolution (CR) out of the House of Representatives without Affordable Care Act riders. However, if House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, were to schedule that vote, he would alienate the more conservative members of his caucus just as he needs to marshal enough votes in the House to pass an increase in the debt limit (deadline, according to the U.S. Treasury Department: Oct. 17). Given that a U.S. default on its debts would be by far the more damaging financial outcome, if the speaker has just one “get out of crisis free” card, he will play it with the debt ceiling. One possible strategy is that the CR and the debt limit resolution will be bound into one very important vote that would take place in mid-October. This strategy may only work if the White House and Democrats concede the issue of spending: That is, they would accept the House-level number of $967 billion, which is lower than the Senate and the president have proposed. Without that concession, at a minimum, it is difficult to imagine the speaker emerging from such an enormous, costly standoff with all of his limbs, not to mention his speakership, intact.

The Conventional-Wisdomers debate whether the shutdown can possibly end before the debt ceiling is raised. While we cannot answer this question, almost nobody thinks it will go on beyond the debt ceiling fix. Good thing, too – because even if closed jogging trails and delayed economic reports don’t seem dire, the negative consequences will start piling up soon enough. Consider:

The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to pay disability claims and pension payments, but without a new appropriation, it will run out of money for those essential services if the shutdown lasts more than two or three weeks. Also, the “essential” government employees who remain on the job doing important things like air traffic control will be due their next paycheck around Oct. 11. At that point the shutdown will affect 1.3 million more workers, excluding active duty military, who will be paid on time.

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