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Everyone will feel the impact of a government shutdown

US Capitol with closed sign
The US National Mall in Washington, DC is marked “closed” during a 2013 government shutdown.

by David Silverberg

A federal government shutdown starting at the first minute of Sunday, Oct. 1 now seems highly likely.

As of this writing, the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives remains at odds over US appropriations. Those appropriations must be approved and signed into law before the start of the 2024 federal fiscal year.

That approval could still happen. Nonetheless, it makes sense to survey the likely effects of a government shutdown on Southwest Florida.

This analysis is based largely on the most recent shutdown, which lasted 35 days from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019. (Since 1995 there have been five significant, multi-day shutdowns when Republican-dominated Houses of Representatives refused or failed to pass appropriations bills on time.)

The 2018-19 shutdown was the result of a fight between then-President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for Trump’s proposed border wall. Ultimately, Trump relented but not before the shutdown, which was the longest in US history, reduced the US gross domestic product by $11 billion.

When the government shuts down, it stops spending money. Federal contractors are not paid and no new contracts are signed. Many government services are suspended or curtailed. In past shutdowns many federal employees were furloughed or made to work without pay but with the expectation they would receive back pay once the government was funded again.

Nonetheless, some essential services will continue. These differ from federal agency to agency.

Below are some of the federal agencies and activities directly related to Southwest Florida with a projection of the effect a shutdown is likely to have on Southwest Floridians. They are listed by order of their likely impact on people’s lives and the urgency of their needs.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

This year FEMA is a major player in Southwest Florida, which is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Ian almost exactly a year after it made landfall. Further north in Florida and in the states beyond, FEMA is active in supporting the people in counties directly hit by Hurricane Idalia.

FEMA is already struggling because of depletion of its Disaster Relief Fund. On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Deanne Criswell, FEMA’s administrator testified before Congress that a government shutdown would impose even more restrictions on its operations. In a shutdown FEMA would have to operate with whatever cash it had on hand at that moment and that “would be insufficient to cover all of our ongoing life-saving operations,” she said.

“We would have to continue to reduce the scope of what it is that we are supporting in our operations,” she testified.

The aftermath of Hurricane Idalia was just one disaster. As of Sept. 21, FEMA was handling 79 major disasters and 4 emergency declarations around the country.

During the Trump shutdown of 2019, FEMA was able to operate on money from the Disaster Relief Fund. That may not be available for long this time. The administration has requested $16 billion from Congress to replenish the Disaster Relief Fund, which is now hung up in the congressional impasse.

In the event of a shutdown, federal disaster money would suddenly stop flowing to Southwest Florida disaster victims, FEMA contractors and communities receiving FEMA funds. FEMA officials would suddenly stop providing services and processing existing requests and assistance. It is likely that only the most urgent, essential life-saving activities would be maintained by a small cadre of unpaid FEMA professionals.

In the Trump shutdown, FEMA stopped issuing flood insurance certificates to banks. The certificates allowed the banks to loan federally-backed money to homeowners wishing to build on FEMA-designated floodplains. With about 40,000 mortgage closings a month, banks and mortgage companies lobbied for an exception that allowed FEMA to continue to issue certificates despite the shutdown.

It’s not clear that the same exception would apply this time. At the very least, a government shutdown will likely hinder or completely halt the recovery activities in the town of Fort Myers Beach and impede the efforts of its homeowners.

Weather and forecasting

Hurricane season is usually considered to end on Nov. 30. The federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. That means that government shutdowns tend to occur towards the end of hurricane season but still within its clutches. (For example, Hurricane Sandy formed late in October, 2012.)

All essential weather forecasting is done by federal agencies like the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a variety of supporting institutions.

Weather forecasting and hurricane monitoring doesn’t stop with a shutdown; in the past, unpaid scientists continued at their posts. However, it can have increasingly deleterious effects depending on how long the shutdown lasts. Forecasting can slow or lose detail. A more subtle corrosive effect is the slowdown of research efforts and improvements for future forecasting. Preparations for upcoming storm seasons slow or stop.

Forecasting is absolutely essential for Southwest Florida given its vulnerability to hurricanes. All the forecasting on local television stations depend on federal data. While the stations’ advanced radars (which also provide data to federal forecasters) can provide pictures of local conditions, the federal government’s satellite network provides long-range forecasts of the entire Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

However, it’s not just hurricane forecasting that’s damaged. Federal forecasters watch for other threats that affect Southwest Florida like drought and dry conditions conducive to wildfires. Harmful algal blooms like red tide and blue-green algae are monitored by NOAA and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

A government shutdown diminishes the ability to see climatic dangers of all kinds ahead—and that’s not a good place for Southwest Florida to be during hurricane season.

The US Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and as such, unlike the Defense Department, is not exempt from government shutdowns.

The Coast Guard has many missions, of which lifesaving is a primary one. However, it is also responsible for coastal security, drug interdiction, maritime safety, environmental protection, law enforcement, waterway management, port safety, immigration control and many more.

Lee County has a Coast Guard station in Fort Myers. Lee and Collier counties also have Auxiliary stations and Charlotte County has an Auxiliary flotilla. The Auxiliary is a volunteer arm of the Coast Guard that assists its many missions. Typical Auxiliary activities include boating safety training, patrolling, and classroom instruction.

During the Trump shutdown the Coast Guard continued its lifesaving search and rescue functions uninterrupted, even though Coast Guard personnel were unpaid.

However, Auxiliary activities were curtailed. Normal operations like vessel examinations, partner visitations, safe boating classes and community relations appearances were put on hold. While Auxiliary volunteers were allowed in January to meet and do public outreach and education, they were prohibited from taking any actions that might have required spending Coast Guard funds.

National parks and reserves

During the Trump shutdown, Southwest Florida parks and reserves, like the Florida Panther and JN “Ding” Darling national wildlife refuges, Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve were open but unstaffed. Visitor centers closed and National Park Service (NPS) websites and social media postings were suspended.

“Park visitors are advised to use extreme caution if choosing to enter NPS property, as NPS personnel will not be available to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response,” announced an NPS press release. “Any entry onto NPS property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s sole risk.”

After the Trump shutdown was over, NPS announced it would use visitors’ fees to fund cleanup of the trash and debris that had accumulated while NPS personnel were absent. Volunteers pitched in to clean up the mess.

The same problems are likely to occur if there’s a shutdown this year.

Aviation operations

Southwest Florida has three airports: the Southwest Florida International Airport in Lee County has regular, scheduled commercial flights as does Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County. Naples Airport in Collier County serves private and general aviation.

All air traffic controllers are federal employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In the past they have worked without pay during shutdowns. However, the Trump shutdown did cause delays and put strains on air travel at major airports and the same can be expected this time.

Because safety inspectors were unpaid, in 2018 and 2019 the FAA did curtail some administrative actions like issuing safety certifications, issuing new pilot safety ratings, and conducting and grading pilot examinations, among other activities.

Both the directorate of Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are parts of DHS. During the Trump shutdown, administrative functions at these agencies were affected. TSA screeners were unpaid and some did not report for work, further delaying and disrupting travel and air-based commerce.

For everyday air travelers, the shutdown manifested itself in longer lines at screening checkpoints and the uncertainty of delayed or cancelled flights.

Social Security, Medicare and more

In the shadow of a shutdown, social programs offer one of the few bright spots.

During the Trump shutdown the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Social Security and Medicare, had been funded by an appropriations bill that had already passed Congress so there was never an interruption in payments.

That is not the case this year. However, these social programs are funded by a separate law that does not require annual appropriations. While many government employees administering the programs will likely work without pay for the duration of any shutdown, recipients should see no interruption in their benefits.

However, activities like issuing new Social Security cards, handling complaints and problems, and verifying applicant eligibility will likely be curtailed.

Other government services will likely slow down or stop. Passports are unlikely to be processed or issued by the State Department. The Small Business Administration is unlikely to handle small business loans. Law enforcement and prison personnel will be expected to work without pay. During the Trump shutdown federal law enforcement and corrections personnel slowed down their activities or took leave.

Mail delivery should not be affected since the US Postal Service operates from different funding sources.

Analysis: No small matter

There is a tendency by politicians justifying a shutdown to minimize or dismiss its impact both to avoid blame and not alarm constituents. They should be ignored—shutting down the government is a big deal. People will feel it on the ground in myriad ways. Additionally, it adds to the cost of everything, driving inflation and lowering the nation’s gross domestic product.

There is also a tendency to hope and expect that a shutdown will be brief. That, however, cannot be counted upon. As with wars, which people usually hope will be swift, decisive and victorious, shutdowns can drag on and have unexpected complications; a good recent example of this is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He expected the war to be over in a matter of days or, at most, weeks—it is now in its nineteenth month.

In the past, shutdowns or “funding gaps” as they are more technically known, were addressed immediately by Congress and the executive branch. Everyone realized they were bad for the country, the economy and the American people. However, since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (today a Naples resident) forced two politically motivated shutdowns in 1995 (the second of which went 21 days into 1996), they have become longer, more acrimonious and more dangerous.

Donald Trump’s 35-day shutdown in 2018 and 2019 was the most damaging to date. This year, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, on his Truth Social media platform he called for another shutdown “to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.”

How the current impasse will play out remains to be seen (and will be covered and analyzed in a separate article). Suffice it to say that no matter how distant or untouched Southwest Floridians may feel from the federal government, they will feel the effects of a shutdown—in their wallets, their travel and their daily lives.

Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on September 24, 2023.

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