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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.

This one is a little trickier to answer. There wasn’t a Transportation Security Administration last time around, so we can’t look to the previous shutdown for an answer and we don’t know for sure if they will be furloughed.

But the government has a list of criteria spelling out which jobs can be exempted from a shutdown, including law enforcement and national security positions and positions required to protect life and property. One could argue that since airport screeners are needed to make sure terrorists aren’t bringing bombs on board, we can’t do without them. And last time, the government opted to keep air traffic controllers on the job rather than let air traffic grind to a halt and cause serious damage to the economy. So there’s a very good chance TSA screeners will join Border Patrol agents, FBI agents and prison guards in the ranks of exempted employees.

Pelosi’s food inspection assertion is also questionable. Alice Rivlin, President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget Director, said in an August 1995 memo that meat inspectors fall under the same emergency economic exemption as air traffic controllers. This means if nobody was there to inspect meat, it couldn’t get sold, and the economic effects would ripple out widely. People wouldn’t be able to buy steaks, chicken and hamburgers; grocery stores and truckers who ship food would take a hit; and farms and slaughterhouses across the nation would be seriously affected. (If you go back further, a 1981 OMB memo also includes all food and drug inspections in the list of exempted positions.)

I’m not trying to minimize the effects of a possible shutdown. If it comes to that, it could mean hundreds of thousands of government employees will lose days or weeks of pay. But there’s an awful lot of politics going on in this budget battle, and all sides are going to twist the facts to buttress their case and make the other side seem unreasonable. Be careful before swallowing anybody’s line about what a shutdown would do.

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  1. stephcob Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I love how its the Democrats are spinning and playing the blame game. They aren’t cooperating. Through deceit they want to smear the Republicans and make it look like they’re the bad guys. After losing seats in the election last year, its all a political game.

    And in a way, its worked. Even that blowhard Newt Gingrich supports a shutdown when the real Republican leaders don’t want one now. This was all different from last week when they passed the budget bill.

    My how quickly their tune changes when they are being nailed.

    Where’s their tea party heroes to come in and save the day?

  2. Art Kelly Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Now you know one of the reasons Republicans were so giddy that Nancy Pelosi was chosen as the minority leader in the House. With Pelosi as the face of the Democratic Party, the GOP will win big again in 2012.

  3. MK Sten Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Just Pelosi as usual, blowing smoke and misinformation.

  4. Annette Curtis Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    during the last shutdown, all employees received their wages and were listed as Adm Leave during the closure.

  5. Mike Daly Says:
    February 26th, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Bottom line is most of what the government does is just push paper and spend someone else’s money on pyramid schemes. Shutting down the government is no harm to anyone beyond the hackerama.

  6. Finserra Says:
    February 26th, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    The fact is that, last time it happened, the longer it went on, the more obvious it became how essential the functioning of the Government was to the American economy. The blithe comments about social security checks going out masks the fact that social security claims processing virtually stopped — before SSA had to eat crow and make some more employees “essential.” Even if you take national security and preservation of life and property off the table, shutdowns are costly and unsustainable. Here are just a handful of less dramatic repercussions of the last shutdown:

    +Approximately 170,000 veterans did not receive their December Montgomery GI Bill education benefits on time.

    +Over 200,000 passport applications were not processed and are were backlogged as a result of the shutdown.

    +Approximately 5,200 small businesses were delayed in receiving SBA guaranteed financing.

    + Small businesses lost the opportunity to bid on an estimated 1,036 contracts valued at $244 million.

    +About 1,300 workplace safety complaints went unanswered and 3,500 investigations involving pension, health, and other employee benefit plans were suspended by the Labor Department.

    +A backlog of 250,000 cases for the Federal Parent Locator Service was created (which helps States locate parents who are delinquent in their child support payments)

    +Hundreds of Superfund toxic waste cleanups were shut down

    +Approximately $60 million in environmental fines, injunctive relief, and Superfund settlements against polluters were not collected, assessed, or negotiated.

    +Over 1,000 export licenses valued at more than $2.2 billion in U.S. exports were delayed

    +Many transactions in the telecommunications industry, including the Turner/Time Warner and Disney/Capital Cities mergers, were held up

    +Over 30,000 FHA single-family home loans could not be insured

    + About $100-200 million of the National Science Foundation research grants were delayed, idling some 2,000 researchers that help support this important public investment.

    +Important statistical releases that American businesses rely on were significantly delayed by the shutdown, most importantly the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Gross Domestic Product and Corporate Profits

    +Some 5,000 requests for data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s archives went unfulfilled due to the shutdown of the National Climate Data Center.

    +Preparation for the launch of the next NOAA Polar satellite (which provides data for NOAA forecasts) was slowed down thereby increasing the likelihood of a gap in future polar orbiting weather satellite coverage.

    +Approximately 7 million National Park visits were prevented

    +Over 2 million visits to the Smithsonian museums. National Gallery of Art, National Zoo, Holocaust Museum, and the Kennedy Center were prevented.

    and on and on and on and on. Let’s just get along.

  7. TeaPartier Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Why would anyone believe anything Nancy Pelosi says?

  8. Currentfed Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Interesting analysis. But it assumes essential employees will just keep on working with only the promise of pay.

    At some point, even essential employees (who have bills to pay, too) will start resigning.

    So yeah, the government is better equipped to handle a short-term shutdown than it used to be. But there are limits, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend government will just keep on keeping on without funding.

  9. Paul Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 8:21 am

    My only comment has to do with the military paycheck comment. I was a commisioned officer during the last gov’t shutdown and my pay was indeed delayed. Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Pelosi in any way….Just and observation.

  10. Ron Says:
    March 1st, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Actually, during the last shutdown, vital functions such as air traffic control and military operations continued as normal. A “real” shutdown would have been catastrophic. Some folks want the services but don’t want to pay for them. Otherwise known as “welfare”.

  11. Michael Says:
    March 1st, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    By the way, the Social Security “trust fund” is just an IOU from the Federal government at this point. Both Republican and Democratic Congresses have been borrowing from the Soc Sec surplus to fund the government operations for years. Regarding the other points, I think the commenter is missing the main issue: it takes a continual supply of $ to keep government services running. Eventually all sorts of essential services get shut down. The Defense Dept and Secy. Gates have been complaining about just the Continuing Resolutions since it is costing them $, delaying project decisions, and will jeopardize various operations. Perhaps it might be good to stop bashing and demonizing personalities on either side and be honest about what is at stake here.

  12. Andy Says:
    March 2nd, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I’ve already seen hiring freezes in place where I work, but management is not using this as an excuse to do lay-offs (and I don’t think they will hire these people back!). Worrying times, but perhaps it is the conservatives way of getting a smaller govt.

  13. No Says:
    March 14th, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Air Force Times and other news agencies are all reporting the military will not be paid if it is shut down. They even cite a pentagon memo, which the pentagon decided not to distribute stating as much. I guess the pentagon briefing saying military won’t get paid is also a Democrat spinning the truth? The difference is DFAS doesn’t send out checks any more, DFAS doesn’t do anything anymore. Military pay is all automated with direct deposit. If the pentagon is briefing people the military won’t be paid, I would tend to believe them. Sorry if this doesn’t fit you plans of blaming the Democrats. Also funny how the Republican party, whom you pretend is better, can’t pay government workers but they can afford another tax break for the top 2% of Americans. **** middle class, government workers, and the military. Everyone knows the people suffering the worst are people who make $250,000 a year or more. I mean if you watch fox news they clearly said “A family making $250,000 might be paying for three kids to go to college, which would basically put them into the poverty level”. Never mind the fact that most of the us population can’t afford to send their kids to universities and have to rely of student loans or the fact the top 2% of the us population isn’t the $250,000 a year mark but more like the $1,000,000 a year mark. Why not give them a tax break? I mean poor people never gave anyone a job. I mean sure, rich people didn’t either since corporate taxes and private taxes are completely separate and the tax breaks are for individuals in the top 2% and not corporations…but hey, why worry about “facts” and “logic” when you can just makes **** up and play on dumb American’s emotions

  14. Mythbusting the No Pay Shutdown Scare « Military MommieVentures Says:
    March 24th, 2011 at 1:29 am

    [...] Another little seen fact-check on many aspects of the government shutdown claims. Again, DFAS has already said that even if the government shuts down, they’ll still send out [...]

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