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Senselessness of shutdown starts to hit home

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

There were several close-to-home developments last week that should have driven home the senselessness of the partial shutdown of the federal government, which, as of today, is now the longest ever.

The first was the U.S. Coast Guard Support Program’s online post of shutdown coping “tips” for families of the Coast Guard’s 8,000 civilian employees who are currently on furlough because the agency that pays them, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is itself operating without funding.

The second was the town of Edenton’s announcement that its efforts to get its drinking water back in compliance with state law are currently on hold because the federal agency whose help it needs to finance water system improvements, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is one of those currently shut down.   

The five-page tip sheet posted by the Coast Guard Support Program sought to advise civilian workers of the Coast Guard, including, apparently, those 1,200 who work at the Aviation Logistics Center at Base Elizabeth City, about things they can do to supplement their income while they’re not receiving any from their jobs.

Titled “Managing Your Finances During a Furlough,” the tip sheet suggested civilians who normally work at tasks to keep the rest of us safe, look into opportunities for now to house-sit, baby-sit, walk pets or tutor children in sports or music. Other opportunities for furloughed workers, according to the tip sheet, are holding garage sales and signing up to be mystery shoppers for businesses. The tip sheet also included advice for dealing with debt collectors and warned against using too much credit or yielding to the temptation to file bankruptcy protection.

Given how embarrassing it must have been to advise its workers that they may have to take up babysitting to bide them over until they can return to their jobs, it’s no wonder the Coast Guard Support Program removed the post as soon as The Washington Post discovered it and began asking questions.

The impact of the shutdown in Edenton is even more ridiculous. The town already has secured state approval to seek a $2.6 million loan from the USDA that, combined with a $1.1 million USDA grant, will give the town the financing it needs to upgrade its water treatment plants. Edenton’s water system is currently out of compliance with a state law regulating the amount of trihalomethanes, a chemical by-product of the water treatment process linked to several forms of cancer, in its drinking water. The upgrades would lower the THM level in the water and get the town back in compliance with state law. 

Knowing how critical this project is, PNC Bank has already approved $2.6 million in interim financing to Edenton for the water system upgrade. All the town needs is a letter from the USDA acknowledging it will repay the $2.6 million loan from the proceeds of a water and sewer revenue bond the town plans to issue next January. The USDA isn’t able to do that, however, because no one from the agency who could write the letter is working. As a result, Edenton’s efforts to fix its water system and ensure its long-term safety are in limbo — held hostage by the federal government shutdown. 

The cause of the shutdown of course remains squarely the fault of President Donald Trump, who continues to refuse to sign appropriation bills for federal agencies like Homeland Security and USDA unless Congress agrees to spend $5.7 billion for an unnecessary wall on the U.S.’ southern border. Trump made building the wall his signature campaign promise in 2016, foolishly proclaiming that Mexico — not U.S. taxpayers — would pay for it. That of course didn’t happen, so he’s now holding the federal government hostage — and the civilian workers at Base Elizabeth City as well as the town of Edenton — until Congress meets his demand for funding.    

There were strong hints late in the week that President Trump might declare a “national emergency” and use funding appropriated by Congress for other purposes like the military and hurricane relief to fund his border wall. Most legal scholars point out that this would be an illegal use of presidential authority that the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, almost certainly would overrule. But there is a silver lining: At least it would allow Trump to crawl out of the political box he’s nailed himself shut in. The president could sign the appropriation bills, reopening the now shuttered agencies like DHS and USDA, and Coast Guard civilians could return to work and Edenton could get its bank loan. The president said he’s looking for a “win.” This seems like his best chance to get one.

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