Shutdown's impacts broad and severe
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The partial government shutdown is causing mines to go uninspected and accidents to go uninvestigated and it's making scientists lose data that could ruin years of long-term research, according to panelists at a hearing in Washington called by Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. He called the hearing to highlight the impacts of the shutdown on the economy and consumer safety.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said a two-week shutdown would trim nearly half a percentage point off of the nation's gross domestic product. The shutdown is in its 11th day.
Rockefeller and other Democratic senators at the hearing repeatedly blamed the shutdown on tea party Republicans in the House of Representatives.
"This shutdown is doing great harm to our country, and it was totally avoidable. It's like black lung," Rockefeller said. "All we needed was a House of Representatives willing to accept reality and the clean CR bill the Senate has sent them."
The "CR," or continuing resolution, the Senate passed would fund the government at current levels, including the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
House Republicans initially demanded that the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, be delayed or defunded in exchange for funding the rest of the government. Many have since backed off that demand and are now asking for less-specific issues linked to budget negotiations.
So far, House Speaker John Boehner has refused to allow a vote on the Senate's continuing resolution. Instead, the House has passed smaller bills that would ensure the military is paid and fund individual agencies of the government, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., seemed to sympathize with his Democratic colleagues' frustration with the House, but called on the Senate to pass the smaller funding bills.
"We are limited in what we can do in the Senate until the House does what it needs to do," Thune said. "Isn't having some funding better than having no funding?"
Capt. Keith Colburn owns the F/V Wizard, a crab-fishing boat in Alaska. He and other fisherman have been unable to fish because the federal inspectors who ensure that fishing is done sustainably have been furloughed.
"The fleet has invested millions just gearing up for the season," Colburn told the senators. "Each day tied to the docks costs thousands more."
The House has not passed a bill that would specifically fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that regulates fisheries.
Colburn told Thune that the House's partial funding bills are not better than nothing.
"Not if you don't get funded," he said. "If the block is littered with families and one family has a great Christmas and the other families have nothing, it doesn't seem like a very good Christmas."
NOAA has sent home about 5,000 of its 12,000 employees.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation accidents, has sent 383 of its 410 employees home. It has suspended work on more than 1,000 ongoing investigations, including its investigation of the pipeline explosion in Sissonville last December.
Deborah Hersman, chairman of the NTSB and a West Virginia native, said there have been 14 accidents since the shutdown began -- including a school bus accident in Tennessee and a worker who died on the D.C. Metro subway system -- that the agency has been unable to investigate because of the shutdown.
"Safety delayed is safety denied," Hersman said.
Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said if the shutdown persists until Monday, the United States will have to cancel its entire season of research in the Antarctic, jeopardizing hundreds of continuing projects in astronomy, physics, weather and biology.
The Antarctic research is just one example of thousands of studies that Leshner said depend on consistent data. Gaps caused by the shutdown could mean years of research would go to waste. Leshner said the damage from the shutdown compounds the damage caused by cuts to research budgets imposed by the sequester.
"Long-term studies depend on continuity," Leshner said. "This shutdown has come as a very serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise.
"Many competitor countries are increasing science budgets in spite of similar economic conditions," he said.
NASA has furloughed 17,000 of its 18,000 employees, and the National Science Foundation has sent 1,970 of its 2,000 employees home.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has sent home 518 of its 540 employees. That means its inspectors are not screening shipments from places like China to make sure that toys are free of lead and bedding is not flammable.
On Monday, a 2-year-old girl died in San Diego when a television fell off a chest of drawers and crushed her. That's the kind of accident the CPSC would investigate if its inspectors were on the job.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission regulates trading on Wall Street. The CFTC has sent home 680 of its 708 employees.
"They're monitoring a $300-trillion market," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. "How many people are being ripped off, right now? The cops are off the beat."
Rockefeller called the piecemeal funding approach taken by the House "gimmickry."
"The real effect of it . . . is to lessen the pressure on the House to do what the House has to do and which the House doesn't want to do," he said. "All I have to do is think of MSHA not inspecting the coal mines in West Virginia and I can spend three weeks being angry . . . I think this is [either] a holistic solution or it's a catastrophic result for the United States of America."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.