Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s senior U.S. senator, who is president pro tempore of the Senate and chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On Tuesday at midnight, the federal government shut its doors, closed for all but the most essential business concerning national security and the safety of the American people.
Vermonters, like Americans in every state and town of this country, are frustrated, confused, and angry because of the Congress’ inability to do its job and keep the government running. Visual consequences of the shutdown can be found around Washington, where museums and national monuments are barricaded.
In the states, national parks and national refuges have closed their gates and thousands of federal offices are shuttered. We heard this morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee from the director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, that as “each day goes by, the impact and the jeopardy [of a shutdown] to the safety and security of this country will increase.” But the true toll of this needless exercise is just beginning to be felt.
While some decry federal spending as if it is some kind of communicable disease, millions of American families rely on government supported programs that provide the very lifeline keeping them afloat. Key nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program support 100,000 Vermonters. Another 1,600 children and families benefit from Head Start. More than 117,000 seniors are enrolled in Medicare, and close to 200,000 Vermonters are enrolled in Medicaid. These Vermonters will continue to receive assistance through the shutdown, but at what pace, when and for how long is uncertain.
The shutdown is hurting in other areas, too. Buyers hoping to purchase a home with a loan from the Federal Housing Administration will be turned away. Our nation’s readiness to respond is threatened; in Vermont alone, 450 technicians in the National Guard were furloughed yesterday, and another 100 were released from active orders.
For farmers in Vermont requiring assistance from the Department of Agriculture, there is no one in the field and no one in the office; over 200 USDA workers in Vermont have been forced to close up shop as a result of the shutdown. WIC, the supplemental food program for pregnant women and young children is 100 percent federally funded; there is only two weeks of funding available in Vermont for the nearly 16,000 participants in the state. What will happen to them? Our Republican colleagues in the House don’t say, and apparently don’t care.
Just yesterday, my office heard from one Vermont organization, Rural Edge. With the assistance of the USDA Rural Rental Housing Loan program, Rural Edge is building much needed affordable rental housing in St. Johnsbury, Vt. The time has come for Rural Edge to pay their contractor. They have the money, but no one is home at USDA’s Rural Development office to authorize the payment, and the work is likely to stop. This is just one of countless examples of how this needless shutdown has already started to impact my state. Every senator could tell similar stories.
Let’s reopen the government and get to the business of passing and conferencing appropriations bills in regular order. Let’s consider the spending bills that include funding for the national parks and the Smithsonian, but which also include funding for wildfire prevention and clean drinking water.
Many Americans think a government shutdown is a Washington, D.C., problem, and that the hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed live in or near the nation’s capital. Nothing could be further from the truth. Federal agencies operate in all 50 states. More than 40 federal agencies operate in Vermont, from the Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Postal Service, the Veterans Administration to the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Justice.
These agencies employ over 7,000 people in Vermont alone. Nearly 1,000 of those employees reported to work Tuesday only to receive a furlough notice. These workers and their families are facing an unnecessary financial hardship, all because a handful of ideologues in Washington have elected to shut the government down rather than come to the table to find an acceptable way to pay our bills and respond to the needs of the American people. Failing to fund the government does not simply mean federal workers are furloughed and government programs are suspended. No. Revenue streams for the federal government also dry up.
The Department of Education? No one is home to collect on defaulted student loans.
The Department of Justice? Civil fraud investigations and litigation, including False Claims Act and fraud cases that bring so much money back to the government, are on hold.
The Internal Revenue Service? Audits that recoup millions in owed taxes are suspended. Billions of American taxpayers’ dollars are invested across the country and around the world. A shutdown means no one is home monitoring those investments.
After ping-ponging a continuing resolution back and forth, the House of Representatives has now adopted a piecemeal approach to reopening the government, agency by agency. Cherry-picking the parts of the government they want to fund is no way to fulfill our responsibilities to the American people.
If Republicans in the House were so concerned with staffing our national parks, they should have passed an Interior appropriations bill which would have funded not only the National Park Service, but the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service, and other agencies. They did not.
If Republicans in the House want to address funding for individual agencies, there is a clear path forward. Let’s reopen the government and get to the business of passing and conferencing appropriations bills in regular order. Let’s consider the spending bills that include funding for the national parks and the Smithsonian, but which also include funding for wildfire prevention and clean drinking water.
Let’s consider spending bills that fund the District of Columbia, along with the Treasury and federal Judiciary.
The continuing resolution passed by the Senate would fund all federal agencies and would provide us the time needed to consider a path forward over the next six weeks. This is a crisis driven by a handful of partisans in the House of Representatives. Vote after vote, day after day, the Senate has rejected one flawed House proposal after another, and still the House has not voted on the clean continuing resolution passed by the Senate. For a handful of House members, there is no path to compromise to keep our government running.
We are elected officials sent here to make decisions — not slogans — on behalf of our constituents. We are sent here to make government work for the American people. This Vermonter, like so many others, is sick and tired of the politics-as-usual approach that has led to this shutdown.
Let’s come to the table. Let’s be adults. Let’s work together for the good of the American people, reopen the government, and find a responsible and reasonable way to get our fiscal house in order.
It’s time for each of us to be a leader, not a sloganeer.