Last updated: October 1, 2013 4:46 am

Americans braced for impacts of shutdown

From the cessation of most federal food safety programmes to the switching off of a popular webcam that has chronicled the life of a baby panda at the National Zoo, and to the closure of every national park, the shutdown of the US government will disrupt the lives of Americans in a multitude of ways.

A top US regulatory official lamented that some elements on Wall Street might even get a free pass once most of the government was officially out of business. “[We] will be handcuffed in our ability to go after crooks who are trying to evade our oversight and protection of markets,” said Bart Chilton, commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “You can bet the ‘do-badders’ are licking their chops.”

It has been 17 years since the last partisan fight in Washington led to a partial government shutdown. Like then, the biggest impact will be felt by the nation’s federal workforce, with about 800,000 out of a total of 2m employees expected to be told to stay at home on temporary unpaid leave. For those employees deemed “essential”, including border patrol agents, pay will probably be delayed.

“What, of course, will not be furloughed are the bills that they have to pay – their mortgages, their tuition payments, their car notes,” President Barack Obama said on Monday. “These Americans are our neighbours . . . They serve their country with pride. They are the customers of every business in this country.”

They will be “hurt greatly”, he said.

The president said some everyday services, such as the delivery of social security cheques to pensioners and doctors’ visits paid for under Medicare, the health programme for the elderly, will continue in a shutdown. So will mail delivery and the staffing of air traffic control and other services deemed essential to national security.

But the list of federal agencies that will be shut or see their workforce cut back to a bare minimum is far longer, with deep implications for businesses.

The health department will be among the hardest hit of federal agencies, with about 52 per cent of staff being put on furlough and dozens of health-related programmes put on hold.

The programmes will include the influenza outbreak detection scheme at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which assists states in monitoring disease outbreaks using genetic and molecular analysis. The Food and Drug Administration, the chief food and drug safety regulator, will be “unable to support” most of its monitoring of food and cosmetics, including imports. But 578 staff will continue to inspect regulated products and manufacturers dealing with drugs.

The National Institutes of Health, the US research agency that oversees billions of dollars in federal grants to universities and labs across the country, will continue to care for patients in clinical centres, and will maintain care for animals used in research, but will not admit new patients or initiate new medical protocols unless it is deemed necessary by the NIH director. Generally patients at such centres are cared for at the NIH only when other standard treatments have failed.

The other regulatory office that will see deep and immediate cuts in its programmes is the Environmental Protection Agency, which will suffer a furlough of about 15,000 of 16,000 employees.

In a September 27 memo, the EPA said all staff would be advised to come to work in a shutdown “to secure their workstations and return home, unless otherwise notified”.

While the EPA will continue to ensure “public health and safety”, those tasked with other kinds of work at the regulator, such as writing laws on carbon emissions, will not be allowed to work.

At the Department of the Interior, which has vast oversight of US lands and issues oil drilling permits, employees who inspect and oversee wells will remain at work, according to a department memo.

But only a “limited number” of employees will be used to patrol oil and gasfields to ensure that oil is not being stolen.

At the Internal Revenue Service, the chief tax agency, only about 9 per cent of staff will not be furloughed: those involved in law enforcement will be excepted.

The Securities and Exchange Commission will be able to remain open. However, most operations at the CFTC will cease and “only employees needed to perform excepted or emergency functions that protect life or property” will continue to work, according to a memo from Anthony Thompson, CFTC executive director.

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