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Factchecking Nancy Pelosi’s government shutdown claims

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Nancy Pelosi/File photo, Gannett

There’s a lot of talk out there about the possible effects of a government shutdown. Some of it’s not true. Several dubious claims about a government shutdown were encapsulated in this comment from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week:

Closing our government would mean our men and women in uniform wouldn’t receive their paychecks, and veterans would lose critical benefits. Seniors wouldn’t receive their Social Security checks, and essential functions from food-safety inspection to airport security could come to a halt.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with her first claim: The military won’t get their paychecks. That wasn’t the case last time the government shut down. A union leader at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which handles the military’s payroll, yesterday told me DFAS stayed open last time and kept sending paychecks to service members, even when other large portions of the government weren’t operating. DFAS also told the union that the agency would stay open again this time, thanks to its unique funding structure.

Claim 2: Veterans would lose critical benefits. There’s some truth to this, but not as much as some might fear. Employees who provide medical care are supposed to stay on the job during a shutdown, since positions needed to protect the safety of human life are exempted from furloughs. And since disability checks and other payments go out at the beginning of the month, those payments wouldn’t be affected by a shutdown immediately after March 4. But processing new claims could be delayed, and new applicants’ initial benefit payments could be reduced if the shutdown continues for more than a few weeks and new claims aren’t turned in by the end of each month.

Claim 3: Seniors wouldn’t receive their Social Security checks. President Obama has also made this claim, but it’s not true. Social Security is paid out from a trust fund, not the regular appropriations process, so money will remain in the till to pay for seniors’ benefits. And last time, the Social Security Administration kept on a skeleton crew of 4,780 employees to keep the checks coming, and later brought back another 50,000 employees to help people get new Social Security cards they needed to work and answer phone calls from people who needed to change their addresses.

Claim 4: Food safety inspections, airport security and other essential functions would come to a halt.

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Shutdown planning, then and now

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With much of the government at risk of a forced vacation next month, there are some obvious parallels with the last such showdown, which resulted in back-to-back closures in late 1995 and early 1996. A bitter battle over spending; a Democratic president pitted against Republican lawmakers, many of them freshmen itching to shrink the federal footprint.

The last time around, though, executive branch preparations appear to have started a lot sooner.

Consider some evidence gleaned from congressional testimony: On August 22, 1995—almost three full months before the first shutdown occurred that November–then-Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin told all department heads to update their shutdown contingency plans within two weeks, according to a memo that was accompanied by a legal opinion outlining what government functions could continue during a “funding hiatus.” The congressional hearing record also shows that at least one agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had worked out a deal by September 1995 with the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees on how to handle shutdown-related furloughs.

Now, barely a week before the March 4 expiration of a continuing resolution could trigger a new shutdown, union leaders say they’re still trying to pry basic information out of agencies on how workers would be affected.

The overall status of shutdown preparations is anyone’s guess. Most agencies won’t discuss the subject or release copies of their contingency plans. Asked earlier this week when six major departments, included Defense, Justice, and Agriculture, had most recently updated those plans, the Office of Management and Budget instead provided a statement from chief spokesman Ken Baer that said in part: “OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course — and so are all the agencies.”

A more forthright assessment came from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. In a Wednesday email to SSA employees, Astrue wrote:

“The truth is that we do not know what Congress will do. We are working hard to deliver the best possible result from Congress and to carefully manage the money we do receive.

“As we await congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work. You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze.

“I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly. Given all of the uncertainty, I encourage you to be careful about believing everything you hear. I will continue to share what we know as more information becomes available.”

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Government responses to shutdown questions UPDATE

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The Energy, Commerce and Defense departments seem to be on the same page, at least when it comes to handling media inquires about a possible government shutdown.

As a matter of course, here is what the Defense Department sent over:

As a matter of course, the Department of Defense plans for contingencies. In fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and these plans are updated routinely. We will do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops. The Department must also continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property. These types of activities will be “exempt” from cessation. All other activities would need to be shut down in an orderly and deliberate fashion.

Federal Times received similiar responses from other agencies…

Here is a response from the Energy Department (Emphasis added).

As a matter of course, our agency plans for contingencies, but this is besides the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The Department is working with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.

Here is the response from the Commerce Department:

As a matter of course, the Commerce Department plans for contingenciesIn fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and these plans are updated routinely.  All of this is beside the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The administration will work with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.

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Fed Times on the air: Government shutdown

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Listen to Federal Times’ Steve Watkins and Steve Losey on this morning’s episode of “Your Turn With Mike Causey” here.

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Obama administration says Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional

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The Justice Department today announced that it has decided Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and will no longer defend the controversial law in court.

DOMA, which forbids the federal government from legally recognizing gay or lesbian marriages, also prevents the government from extending health benefits to same-sex spouses of federal employees. Even spouses of federal employees who were legally married in states allowing same-sex marriage now can not receive health care through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, unless they are also federal employees.

DOMA also meant the surviving same-sex spouses of dead federal employees could not get survivor annuities.

The Obama administration has extended limited benefits to gay and lesbian employees’ partners and spouses over the last year and a half. But spousal health benefits has remained the most desired — and elusive — benefit for gay and lesbian feds. It remains to be seen exactly what effect President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision will have, but it could help remove the last stumbling block preventing the expansion of health benefits.

Last July, a federal judge struck Section 3 down as unconstitutional after several federal employees and retirees sued.

Complete text of Holder’s letter to Congress can be found after the jump:

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Federal Times on the air: Daily shutdown updates with WUSA

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Want the latest news regarding the possible government shutdown, and how it’s going to affect you? Beginning tomorrow, Washington area viewers can tune in to WUSA Channel 9 every weeknight at 7 p.m. to see Federal Times’ editors and reporters talking about what could be the first major government shutdown in 15 years.

Editor Steve Watkins, senior writers Stephen Losey and Sean Reilly, and our other reporters will deliver daily updates on budget negotiations that could prevent or end a shutdown, which government operations will keep running or close up shop, and what it means for the public and government workers. We’ll keep making these daily appearances until Congress strikes a budget deal that will allow federal agencies to continue operating.

Our appearances on WUSA are in addition to our weekly guest spots on Federal News Radio, and Losey’s monthly appearances on News Channel 8′s Capital Insider. Speaking of which, Watkins and Losey will be appearing on “Your Turn With Mike Causey” tomorrow morning at 10 to discuss the shutdown and other issues affecting the federal workforce. Tune in to Federal News Radio at 1500 AM or listen to the podcast at www.federalnewsradio.com, and call in to let us know what’s on your mind.

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Government responses to shutdown questions eerily similar

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The staff over here at Federal Times are getting a sense of deja vu from agency responses to our questions about a possible government shutdown.

Here is a response from the Energy Department (Emphasis added).

As a matter of course, our agency plans for contingencies, but this is besides the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The Department is working with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.

Here is the response from the Commerce Department:

As a matter of course, the Commerce Department plans for contingencies.  In fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and these plans are updated routinely.  All of this is beside the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The administration will work with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.

Somehow I doubt that these two public affairs people at these two agencies came up with the exact same phrasing and punctuation.

I will post questions to each of these agencies and will update if I get a response.


USPS pension puzzle

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Here’s an intriguing nugget from the U.S. Postal Service’s latest quarterly report: Even as the Obama administration agrees that the Postal Service is owed a huge refund on past payments to its pension program, the Office of Personnel Management—headed by Obama appointee John Berry—is requiring it to shell out more for current payments.

For the first quarter of fiscal 2011, the Postal Service’s contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS, rose by $24 million—from $1,469 million to $1.493 million—versus the same period in fiscal 2010, even though the USPS workforce continued to shrink, the report says. The reason, according to the Postal Service, is that its employer contribution rate increased from 11.2 percent to 11.7 percent of eligible payroll. The agency is appealing that boost to a federal board of actuaries on the grounds that its FERS obligation is already overfunded to the tune of some $6.9 billion.

In its newly released 2012 budget request, the White House proposed refunding the Postal Service that money over 30 years, starting with a $550 million down payment this year.

At least to non-actuarial minds, it seems contradictory to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other. We’ve asked OPM for an explanation; if we get one, we’ll post it here.

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The presidential line: Shutdown? What shutdown?

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So if you ask federal agencies what they are doing in advance of a possible shutdown, you get vaguely similar answers. One of the main qualities they share is how unsatisfying they are.

From the Department of Homeland Security.

“The President has been clear that he does not want to see a shutdown, and we have heard similarly from Capitol Hill. We are committed to working together to make sure that we fund government so the American people get the services they need and rely on.”

From the General Services Administration.

“The Administration is working to keep the government up and running for the American people.  At this point we can’t speculate on the specifics about what a government shutdown would mean.”

Just move along. Nothing to see here.

State Dept.: Get out of Libya

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All hell is breaking loose in Libya, and the State Department this afternoon ordered non-essential employees and employees’ family members to evacuate the country.

In a travel warning posted online, State also advised any U.S. citizens staying in the country to avoid demonstrations and leave an area immediately if a demonstration begins.

State issued a similar warning for Egypt Feb. 1, as the protests that culminated in Hosni Mubarak’s resignation started to grow and some were concerned about the potential for violence. But the situation in Libya already is much uglier than Cairo ever was.

Hundreds of protesters may have already been killed, and there are reports that helicopters are firing into crowds and the Libyan navy is shelling Tripoli. Al Jazeera reports that two pilots — reportedly “senior colonels” — defected to Malta after refusing orders to bomb protesters. And Moammar Gaddafi may already have fled.

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