Experts say that with two ongoing wars and millions of service members, veterans and their families dependent on government services, only scattered portions of the Defense Department are likely to be closed if Congress cannot strike a deal by March 4. (Air Force file photo)
Large portions of the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are expected to continue operating under a government shutdown that could begin March 5.
But processing of new veterans' benefit claims could be delayed and some initial benefits payments for new veterans could be reduced if the shutdown continues for more than a few weeks. And the union representing commissary employees fears commissaries also would be forced to close.
It remains to be seen exactly how a government shutdown would be implemented. Agencies across the board — including Defense and VA — are refusing to comment on their plans, and the White House will only say that shutdown contingency plans are being updated.
The Navy's chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, said in a Feb. 24 interview that each agency within the Defense Department is figuring out its own plan for responding to a potential shutdown.
"Every agency and every organization has to look at itself to determine how it's going to weather through a potential shutdown, and what do they consider to be essential, and that really is a question for them to address."
"In the case of the Navy, obviously, our priority is on the operational forces forward. Those who are in the fight at the very top of that list," Roughead said. He added that other priority programs the Navy will keep running are those related to nuclear security and safety and certain maintenance programs, such as SUBSAFE, which is outfitting nuclear subs with the capability of recovering from unanticipated flooding.
Experts say that with two ongoing wars and millions of service members, veterans and their families dependent on government services, only scattered portions of Defense are likely to be closed if Congress cannot strike a deal by March 4 to continue funding agencies.
"The country's armed services are dependent on civilian employees," said Mark Gibson, labor relations specialist at the American Federation of Government Employees, said in an interview. "There's really no way to get around that. And when you're fighting two wars, it becomes even more critical. They can't tolerate any disruption of service."
The Office of Management and Budget requires agencies to prepare contingency plans that spell out how many employees would keep working during a shutdown, including employees "engaged in military, law enforcement or direct provision of health care activities." This could allow large portions of the Defense and VA work forces to stay on the job.
Frank Rock, who oversees the AFGE locals that represent Defense Finance and Accounting Service employees, said that agency will keep operating, as it did during the last shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, so that military service members can be paid. DFAS is the Defense Department agency responsible for sending out paychecks and other benefits checks to the military and military retirees.
DFAS is financed through a working capital fund — where it charges customer agencies for services and uses those revenues to pay its employees' salaries and other costs — and not through direct appropriations approved by Congress. Rock said DFAS managers confirmed to him Thursday that the agency's self-sustaining status allows it to stay open during a shutdown.
Other Defense Department agencies that operate under working capital funds include the Defense Logistics Agency and various depots. Gibson said that would likely keep them open during a shutdown.
"DLA typically tries to maintain two to three weeks of operating capital," Gibson said.
James Schmidt, president of AFGE Local 916 at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, said that about 9,000 mechanics, pipe fitters and other wage grade employees kept maintaining aircraft and buildings during the last shutdown. But General Schedule employees at Tinker were furloughed then.
Local 916 sent a letter to Tinker managers Feb. 23 demanding to bargain with managers over any potential furloughs resulting from a government shutdown. The local said it wants all 13,000 civilian employees at Tinker — including GS employees — to be deemed essential and exempted from any shutdown this time. The union also wants Congress to set aside money so essential employees who keep working during a shutdown are paid on schedule. Last time, employees who kept working during the shutdown were not paid until after the budget dispute had been resolved.
Schmidt said his local has no information from Air Force managers about how a shutdown might be implemented. But he said that his sources in Congress told the local that much of the Defense work force may remain on the job and not be furloughed.
"We've had some congressional aides, and people we talked to, that said it may not affect DoD," Schmidt said. "But there's no guarantee."
During the November 1995 shutdown, about 86 percent of the VA's 239,000 employees were excepted from furloughs, including the bulk of those working at VA medical centers, according to figures provided to Congress. But at veterans benefit offices, calls went unanswered, mail was not opened and claims were not processed.
A shutdown this year would also fall heaviest on benefits administration, said Garry Augustine, national service director for the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans. Because disability checks and other payments go out at the beginning of the month, those would not be affected by a shutdown immediately after March 4, Augustine said. But processing of new claims could be slowed, he said, and payments could ultimately be reduced. If claims aren't turned in by the end of each month during a shutdown, applicants won't get credit for that month in any retroactive payment if those claims are later approved.
Would commissaries close?
Gibson said that military commissaries kept operating during the last shutdown, but their status this time is unclear. The Defense Commissary Agency, or DECA, told the union Thursday that it would have to halt collective bargaining negotiations, which were scheduled to run from Feb. 28 to March 11, if funding is not approved. Gibson said this could mean DECA is expecting a furlough.
Many military families depend on commissaries, Gibson said, and he noted that they have large amounts of meat, vegetables and other items that would go bad during a shutdown if they aren't sold.
Gibson said that some building maintenance and other operations could halt during a shutdown, and only bare-bones maintenance would continue. He expects some construction projects facing a congressionally mandated deadline to continue, such as those required for Base Realignment and Closure activities that must be finished by Sept. 15. But other construction activities may halt during a shutdown, he said.
Capt. Brian Brown, commanding officer of the Naval Oceanographic Office, has asked the office's managers to prepare lists of personnel required to sustain critical operations during a shutdown.
"At this point, none of us know exactly what will happen between now and 4 March," Brown said in a staff e-mail last week. "We need to be ready to comply with presidential directives to suspend part of our operations not absolutely critical to maintaining our direct warfighting support and minimize our operational footprint for critical operations, should we be directed to do so."
Workers at Watervliet Arsenal, an Army manufacturing facility in upstate New York, were spared furloughs during the 1995-96 shutdowns, said Tim Ostrowski, president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 2109. Still, he said, just the mention of the word is "a morale killer."
"This is real, and it concerns a lot of my folks," Ostrowski said.
Gibson said union officials have a lot of unanswered questions — for example, exactly how employees would be selected for a furlough.
"If two people do a job and only one person is needed, which one of us stays?" Gibson said. "How do we decide that? Especially in light of the fact that someone who stays will be paid eventually. What if you're furloughed for a month, or even two weeks? Should we share that time and alternate between employees? These are the kind of discussions unions want to start having with agency officials."
And union officials are growing angry and frustrated at the lack of communication from Defense on how a shutdown might be enacted.
"The only thing that could make this worse is if you were a state employee in Wisconsin," Gibson said.
Editor Steve Watkins contributed to this article.