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Human and financial costs mount as shutdown enters fourth week with Trump threatening longer standoff |

Human and financial costs mount as shutdown enters fourth week with Trump threatening longer standoff

The Washington Post
| Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:03 a.m

WASHINGTON — The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history ground into a fourth week Saturday with President Trump showing fresh defiance on Twitter, congressional Democrats firmly resolved to resist his calls for a border wall, and unpaid workers caught in the middle.

“We will be out for a long time unless the Democrats come back from their ‘vacations’ and get back to work,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning. “I am in the White House ready to sign!”

Trump made the statements a day after about 800,000 federal employees missed an expected paycheck, and after he tamped down speculation that he might declare a national emergency to begin construction on his wall and break the impasse. Instead, he told reporters Friday, “we want Congress to do its job.”

Meanwhile, many lawmakers were back home hearing from frustrated constituents, including Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houla­han, who held town hall meetings Saturday in southeastern Pennsylvania.

There, she said in an interview, she heard from a young schoolteacher afraid the local food bank would no longer be able to offer meals for her students, the operator of a federally funded women’s shelter that is having to turn people away, and a tax preparer who could not begin securing refunds for her indigent clients because the IRS had not made the necessary software available.

“It’s disappointing to say the least, because the things that I ran on and that many of the people who just came into this Congress ran on, are getting lost in this nonsense,” Houlahan said. “Things that we were brought to Congress to do — like health care, like reforming the way our government works — we’d very much like to get to soon.”

While they may never be precisely calculated, the costs of the shutdown are likely already into the billions, and they continue to mount. Beyond the likely cost of paying furloughed employees for work not done, additional costs include eventual overtime costs to deal with backlogs of work and the indirect impacts of various shuttered programs and services.

The Obama administration estimated the direct costs of the two-week October 2013 shutdown at $2.5 billion, while adding $2 billion to $6 billion in lost economic output. Those figures did not include miscellaneous other fiscal impacts, including millions in lost user fees and interest owed on late federal payments.

Federal workers who have been forced to work without pay have started going to the courts to challenge the shutdown.

In one major action, five federal employee unions representing a combined 244,000 members working in coastal Virginia, southern California, central Montana and the Washington area filed suit Friday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, demanding full compensation for time and overtime worked over the three weeks of the shutdown.

“This lawsuit is not complicated: We do not believe it is lawful to compel a person to work without paying them,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, one of the groups suing. “With this lawsuit we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t pay workers with I.O.U.s. That will not work for us.’ ”

While no prior lawsuit has forced the government to pay employees during a shutdown, a Federal Claims judge ruled in 2017 that some federal employees were entitled to damages for the delay in their paychecks.

Congress on Friday passed legislation to guarantee back pay for all workers affected by the shutdown — those who have been furloughed and those who have continued working as personnel deemed essential to the protection of life and property. Trump said Friday that he would sign it.

In past shutdowns, furloughed and nonfurloughed workers have gotten back pay, though federal contractors and their employees are generally left uncompensated.

Local authorities have stepped up to aid workers and families affected by the missing paychecks. Tampa International Airport, starting Monday, is hosting a food bank for about 700 federal employees working at the airport, as well as offering other assistance with day-to-day needs. In Washington, the city government Saturday served free lunches for kids 18 and younger at nine recreation centers, and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged to do so every Saturday until the shutdown is resolved.

In his tweets Saturday, Trump reacted sharply to a televised comment that he lacks a strategy for ending the shutdown. He tweeted shortly after an NBC “Today” panel with network reporters Peter Alexander and Kristen Welker, as well as Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, discussed the topic.

“I do have a plan on the Shutdown,” he said. “But to under­stand that plan you would have to understand the fact that I won the election, and I promised safety and security for the American people. Part of that promise was a Wall at the Southern Border. Elections have consequences!”

But Democrats are fully aware of their own mandate — particularly in the House, where the party gained the majority for the first time in eight years by winning 40 seats in a midterm election suffused with Trump’s apocalyptic warnings about the threats posed by illegal immigrants.

Before lawmakers left Washington Friday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., attempted to make a similar point as Trump did Saturday about the 2016 election in a floor exchange with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

“He was elected by the American people as president to carry out border security and build a wall,” Scalise said. “It was part of the national debate. I know some people on your side don’t even want to recognize that that election occurred and the result. But it happened.”

Replied Hoyer, “Oh no, I think there was an election, and he did raise that question. And as I recall, that’s why I’m the majority leader and you’re the minority whip.”

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