Lawmakers, Fort Benning, locals react to federal gov't shutdown

acarlson@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 1, 2013 

Hours after the federal government began its first shutdown in 17 years, with Congress at an impasse over a push by House Republicans to either defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, local lawmakers, officials and residents are reacting to the news.

Local government

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican who represents parts of north Columbus, took to Twitter at midnight.

He retweeted Majority Leader Eric Cantor, @GOPLeader, one of the House Republican leaders.

"RT if you stand with House Republicans: #NoSpecialTreatment – not for unions, not for big business and not for Congress."

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop was in Washington this morning as the lack of action by congress is causing a federal government shutdown. Bishop said he looks at it much the same way a surgeon would look at his or her job.

"The mandate of a surgeon is first to do no harm," Bishop said in a phone interview. "Shutting down government and not living up to the full faith and credit of the United States government will do tremendous harm. More people are -- and will -- suffer because of this."

Bishop, an Albany Democrat who also has a residence in Columbus, said there is only one way this crisis will be resolved.

"It is going to have to be resolved by compromise," he said. "And I don't know where the side of the angels is other than to do what the government does and fund it."

It was business at usual this morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Columbus. The U.S. District Court clerk's office was open, though no court was scheduled. U.S. marshals and federal probation were all working. The post office, which is in the downtown federal building, was operational and people were moving in and out picking up mail, purchasing stamps and other postal related activities.

Fort Benning and military

Elsie Jackson of the Fort Benning Public Affairs Office said today that of 3,900 civil service workers about 60-70 percent will be furloughed and sent home Tuesday morning.

Supervisors informed the workers who came in at the proper time Tuesday. The workers signed a document stating that they had received a letter with the furlough information.

The commissary will be open Tuesday but will then be closed.

Jackson said all essential services -- law enforcement, medical and dental facilities, schools, childcare facilities and emergency services -- will continue.

Fort Benning schools will remain open. The Post Exchange, convenience stores and most morale, welfare and recreation services will remain open.

The Fort Benning website will be updated with official information regularly.

For those depending on the Military Heath System, the following statement was issued this morning by the Defense Health Agency: "We know that those who rely on the Military Health System (MHS) are concerned about how the government shutdown might impact their health care. While we can’t predict the exact consequences of a shutdown on every part of our MHS, we will likely see some impact on the delivery of health care services within our military hospitals and clinics. Inpatient, acute and emergency outpatient care in our medical and dental facilities will continue, as will private sector care under TRICARE."

Residents react

April Washington first heard news of the shutdown when she walked into work on Tuesday. "I'm shocked," she said, adding that this doesn't seem like the appropriate time to have another fight about the Affordable Care Act, which was first passed more than three years ago.

Some local residents said the face-off bored them as yet another example of escalating political theater. Others urged action.

"I think it's ridiculous. I've lost my patience with politics," said Irene Hall. "I've lost my patience ... I want (Congress) back to work right now."

Hall has a daughter in college and a son who receives SSI; she said he was anxious about news of a federal shutdown.

"(They were) very stressed about that news, but they haven't been through a government shutdown before, whereas I'm old," Hall said.

Keely Gilmartin has family in the military -- and is glad that Congress was able to pass a special spending bill that will continue to pay military members -- but echoed Hall: "It's ridiculous," she said.

House Speaker John Boehner has been motivated to act by a small section of his party, Gilmartin said. "He doesn't want to get fired."

Tom Dolan, chair of the political science department at Columbus State University, had already spoken with Rep. Westmoreland's office when reached by phone Tuesday morning.

"I found it interesting that they're at work," Dolan said. Westmoreland's office told him that staffers will be furloughed by tomorrow, 50 percent each day.

Dolan said that House Republicans -- specifically the minority who advocated for the spending bill showdown that has resulted in a shutdown -- should be wary of calling this "success" a victory.

"(They) see this as a success and they don't realize the damage it's going to do," he said, pointing to the previous government shutdown in the '90s, which turned public opinion against House Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Dolan went on: Congress created this situation; it was avoidable. "They (Republicans and Democrats) played chicken ... The members of Congress are standing on principle, they all say."

The effects of the shutdown may not be immediate for many. But in areas where many federal employees live -- such as metro Atlanta -- the missing paychecks will start to add up, meaning less money for both necessary things (food, housing) and discretionary goods, creating ripples that reach beyond the public sector.

The ultimate cost may come next year: "I really hope that the voting population remembers this when their representatives and other candidates approach them in the spring asking for donations," Dolan said.

Democrats and Republicans

Rick Allen, the chairman of the Muscogee County Republican Party, said that the shutdown will allow Americans a chance to learn more about the Affordable Care Act. "I'm not for a government shutdown," he said -- but the Congressional deadlock over further debate about the bill forced the issue.

This isn't political theater, Allen said. "Political theater has brought us to this point."

An open-ended shutdown is far from ideal, not the least for what it would do to the national economy. "Right now, we're more fragile and we need to be careful," Allen said.

Though Allen hopes for a compromise within a few days, he said the public has an opportunity now to take a closer look at a bill which they may not understand -- and which is already being implemented.

Joseph Brannan, chairman of the 2nd District of the Georgia Republican Party, said that he was "not surprised" at news of the shutdown.

"I understand the principles (House Republicans are) trying to stand on and I agree ... but shutting down the government? I don't know," Brannan said. "I put on Facebook this morning, 'The sun is rising so is it really that bad that the government shut down while they're trying to sort it out?'"

Though Brannan said he understands the move's political logic -- Oct. 1 marks the opening of the healthcare exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans oppose -- he "feels for" furloughed federal workers who are caught in a "political struggle."

Most estimates put the total number of furloughed federal workers between 750,000 and 1 million.

The last government shutdown lasted 21 days. But the nature of a "shutdown" has changed since then: all "essential" government functions will continue, including the military, Social Security and unemployment benefits.

Brannan said it's possible that, if the shutdown drags on, more people will become more used to the situation -- an unfortunate illustration, he said, of an important question: "Are we spending our money where we need to be?"

John Van Doorn, chairman of the Muscogee County Democratic Party, said his reaction was characterized by four different emotions: disbelief, empathy (for affected federal workers), resolve (in the face of a far-right ideology) and sorrow.

"These people lost the election, lost the votes," he said. "There's no legitimate way they can do this."

What matters, Van Doorn said, is emphasizing civility and compromise, as well as remembering the health insurance now provided by the Affordable Care Act to the previously uninsured -- all of which has been lost in this new "temper tantrum."

The next step is a clean spending bill, without politics. "It's what could and should have happened," Van Doorn said.

In contrast to reaction to the sequestration earlier this year -- which drastically reduced federal spending as a kind of "worst-case scenario" to force Congressional bipartisanship, but which has never been completely lifted -- citizens should remain wary of attempts to cut more and more spending and shut down more and more government functions.

Van Doorn said that just because the cuts aren't apocalyptic, they still hurt.

"Like a frog who gets used to that water cranking slowly," he said, "we may end up boiling."

Veterans services and benefits

Military veterans health care for military veterans will not be impacted by the federal government shutdown, although claims processing and payments will be suspended once existing funding runs out in late October.

That was the word Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which issued a list of what’s impacted by the shutdown — and what’s not — including claims and benefits, which should “continue through late October.”

VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson on Tuesday referred a reporter to the Veterans Field Guide to Government Shutdown on the agency’s website. Here’s a breakdown of the information:

NOT IMPACTED

• All VA medical facilities and clinics will remain fully operational, including inpatient care, outpatient care, prescriptions, surgeries, dental treatment, extended care, mental health care, nursing home care, special health care services for women veterans and vet centers

• Military sexual trauma counseling

• Readjustment counseling services (Vet Centers)

• Interments in national cemeteries will continue, but may be on a reduced schedule. Contact the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) scheduling office at 1-800-535-1117

• My HealtheVet — all services

• Claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs are anticipated to continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted

• NCA will process applications for headstones, markers and medallions

• Insurance processing

• Home loan processing

• NCA will notify VBA of death for benefit actions

• Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) call centers will be operational except for education

• Acquisitions Logistics Center will accept and fill prosthetics supply orders

• Office of Small and Disadvantaged Small Businesses

• Veterans crisis line

IMPACTED

• VBA regional offices public contact services will not be available

• No decisions on claims appeals or motions will be issued by the Board of Veterans Appeals

• Freedom of Information Act queries will not be processed

• Privacy Act requests will not be processed

• Recruiting and hiring of Veteran job applicants will cease with the exception of the Veterans Health Administration

• Presidential Memorial certificates will not be processed

• Interments at National Cemeteries will be conducted on a reduced schedule

• Overseas Military coordinator operations will be suspended

• VA Secretary correspondence with Veterans and VSOs suspended

• Outreach and Public Awareness Activities

• VetSuccess on Campus suspended

• Vocational Rehabilitation and Education Counseling will be limited

• VBA will not be able to continue overtime for claims processors

• Claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation programs are anticipated to continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted

SUSPENDED

VA call centers and hotlines will cease to function, including:

• VBA Education Call Center: 1-888-442-4551

• Inspector General Hotline: 1-800-488-8244

• Consumer Affairs: (consumeraffairs@va.gov; VA’s home page “Contact Us” function and 202-461-7402 will be suspended) • Congressional liaison veterans queries

Suspended national phone numbers

• Education Benefits: 1-888-442-4551

• Consumer Affairs: 202-461-7402

• Inspector General Hotline: 1-800-488-8244

• Special Issues: Gulf War/Agent Orange/Project SHAD/Mustard Agents and Lewisite/Ionizing Radiation: 1-800-749-8387

• Status of headstones and markers: 1-800-697-6947

• Whistle-blower reprisal: 1-800-872-9855

Recreation

Those looking to visit a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground or park, including West Point Lake north of Columbus, will be out of luck due to the federal government shutdown.

They are closing, according to a release from the Corps’ Mobile District.

Customers scheduled to arrive Tuesday may cancel their reservations for a full refund, the Corps said. They also may leave their reservation open should the shutdown be lifted quickly, allowing the gates to reopen.

Campers already on site will be required to vacate the premises by 3 p.m. Wednesday, with refunds being given for that part of their reservations not used, the Corps said. Those being told to leave also may leave their reservation open for possible use once the shutdown is lifted.

Those wanting a refund should call 1-888-448-1474.

Related stories:

Gallery: Some quick hits of what's closed and open during the shutdown

Best tweets covering government #shutdown

Federal government shutdown: Who gets paid, who doesn't and what's going to close

-- Tony Adams, Larry Gierer, Stephanie Pedersen and Chuck Williams contributed to this report

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