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Many factors figure into what government operations continue during shutdown

Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 11:42 p.m.
 

Not all departments were created equal when it comes to the government shutdown, which enters its 14th day on Monday.

The requirements of laws, court decisions, legal opinions and the Constitution have left in place a patchwork federal government as the spat between Republicans and Democrats drags on. President Obama met with Senate Republicans about solutions to the standoff as House Republicans tried to cobble together their own plan to reopen the government and allow the country to pay its bills without exceeding the debt ceiling. Several Republican senators said on Sunday that a new Democratic request to increase government spending is hurting chances of a deal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke briefly on Sunday afternoon but failed to reach agreement.

House Republicans proposed cutting entitlement benefits and eliminating the medical device tax in the federal health care law in exchange for reopening government and staving off the possibility a federal default by raising the country's debt limit. The plan could ease the automatic across-the-board budget cuts that took effect last year, which were the result of a 2011 federal funding impasse.

Republicans take the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, with 69 percent of voters saying they have a negative opinion of them, according to an Associated Press-GFK poll released on Friday. Fifty-three percent of voters disapprove of President Obama's job performance, and 54 percent take a negative view of the Democratic Party, according to the poll, which was conducted Oct. 3-7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Those numbers will only get worse as the furlough of 350,000 federal workers reaches the two-week mark, said Cliff Smith, a finance and economics professor at the University of Rochester's graduate school of business.

“The heat is going to get turned up on both sides,” Smith said.

Not all federal workers are stuck at home, though. Employees can remain on the job during the shutdown if they're needed to protect life or property, enable the president to fulfill his constitutional duties or carry out duties required by a separate law — such as sending out Social Security checks, which don't require congressional appropriation.

But because of the sometimes-Byzantine federal funding process, what is and isn't running during the shutdown can be confusing. Food stamps, for instance, still have funding from the stimulus act, but funding was cut off for the related Women, Infants and Children food assistance program, which states run.

“We anticipate, based on the funds we have, we can continue to operate (WIC) through the end of October,” said Aimee Tysarczyk, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare. “What we're doing right now is contingency planning (in case the shutdown extends into November). We're asking WIC offices to provide creative thinking” about ways to squeeze more money into the program.

The behavior of government websites has been among the most confusing aspects of the federal bureaucracy's reaction to the shutdown. Many remain accessible but haven't been updated since Oct. 1, some function completely, and others disappeared. The State Department's website, for instance, hums along just fine, while NASA's website has been replaced by a message about the shutdown.

Unless a website is being used for transactions that can no longer be monitored, there's little reason to take it down, said Gregory Duffie, owner of the Avalon web design and hosting firm 37Solutions.

“I can understand why a drivers' services site would be down, because they need to do verifications,” Duffie said. “But NASA is full of people way smarter than both of us combined, and they can't keep the site up?”

The Associated Press contributed. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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