EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 2, 2013

At first, many may not notice government shutdown

By Douglas Moser
dmoser@eagletribune.com

---- — Congress failed to enact spending plans for the federal government Monday night, leading portions of it to remain closed starting yesterday morning in the first shutdown in 17 years.

But on the ground level, that can mean a little or a lot, depending on why and how often a person interacts with the federal government. Many people will not even notice.

Agencies not part of the annual budgeting process, like the U.S. Postal Service, will not be affected. Federal employees responsible for protection of life and property, such as FBI agents and air traffic controllers, are exempted from the shutdown and reporting to work to perform those duties.

Also, many grant and funding programs continue, for now, meaning colleges are not affected.

The Postal Service funds most of its operations from a separate fund and is not subject to the budgeting process. Mail will be picked up and delivered, and post offices are open. Social Security is considered an “indefinite appropriation” out of a trust fund and will continue to make payments through the shutdown. Medicare also will continue to make payments.

Congress on Monday passed, and President Obama signed, a measure to continue paying military personnel, who would have gone without pay had the act not been approved.

Public higher education institutions, which rely on federal grants and student aid, may find programs affected if a shutdown drags on.

This year, Northern Essex Community College is scheduled to receive about $1.8 million in federal grants through various agencies, including the Department of Education, Department of Labor, and the National Science Foundation, school officials said.

“At this time, financial aid, and our largest programs for serving at-risk students — our TRIO-Student Support Services and Title V-Hispanic Serving Institutions grants — are not at risk of de-funding or closing, as the college will continue to carry the costs in the short term,” Lane Glenn, president of NECC, said in a statement. “However, the longer the federal government is shut down, the greater the risk that these services, and others, will be affected. We are monitoring the situation carefully, and will do all we can to meet our students’ needs.”

Most of the Internal Revenue Service’s 94,516 employees were furloughed starting yesterday, according to the agency’s contingency plan.

Tax deadlines are still in effect — including an Oct. 15 final deadline for filing 2012 taxes with an approved extension — but customer service personnel are not available in person or on the phone, and refunds could be delayed.

Peggy Riley, a spokeswoman for the IRS, did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

Employees deemed essential to life and property are exempt from the shutdown, according to federal law. FBI Special agent Special Agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman in the Boston field office, said everyone there is on duty.

“For the Boston field office, everyone is working,” he said. “For headquarters, there are headquarters personnel who are not working. But it doesn’t affect us in the field.”

Judiciary officials say federal courts in Massachusetts will remain open for approximately 10 business days during the government shutdown.

Robert Farrell, Clerk of Court for the District of Massachusetts, said in a statement that the federal Judiciary will reassess its situation on or around Oct. 15.

All proceedings and deadlines will remain in effect as scheduled. The electronic filing of documents with the courts will remain in operation.

Parts of the Federal Aviation Agency will be closed, but the Airports Division, which oversees the nation’s airports, is funded by fuel taxes and ticket surcharges, will remain open, said Mike Miller, manager of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.

“We have zero impact, because the nature of the closure,” he said.

Air traffic controllers also are considered essential and are exempt from the shutdown. However, the Lawrence airport lost its controllers to mandatory across-the-board federal spending cuts earlier this year.

Rhonda Siciliano, the public affairs officer for the federal Housing and Urban Department’s New England Region, could not be reached for comment. However, a message on her office phone line said most of the department’s programs have been interrupted due to the shutdown, and employees were told they cannot work until funding is approved.

The shutdown’s effects will be felt most acutely by those dependent on government services and federal employees who will be furloughed, though some analysts were arguing Tuesday morning that many Americans would not be affected at all by the shutdown. Congressional offices in Massachusetts will be closed, but skeleton crews will staff offices in Washington D.C. to assist constituents.

Around Boston, the USS Constitution museum and the Faneuil Hall visitor’s center were closed.

The state is closely monitoring a Head Start school program in Franklin County whose contract expired on Oct. 1, and could have to furlough workers and turn away students unless the state can find a legal remedy to keep it funded until the federal government reopens and grants are renewed.

Salem city officials are worried about the tourism impact during October — a peak visitor season in the Witch City — due to the closure of visitors’ centers linked to national parks and historic sites.

And the resources for the federal low-income home heating assistance program called LIHEAP could also be in jeopardy if the shutdown drags on, officials said.

The last government shut down occurred in late 1995 into January 1996 and lasted 21 days when former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich could not agree on a spending bill. Republicans bore the brunt of voter backlash during the ensuring elections.

State House News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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