Longest government shutdown ends

Friday, Jan. 25, marked the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history following 35 days of negotiations between Congress and the White House. The partial shutdown ended when President Trump signed a temporary funding bill—one that will run out on Feb 15 if no long-term agreement is reached.

Trump’s signature came as a surprise to many; the stopgap bill he signed was almost identical to the one sent to his desk in December at the beginning of the shutdown. Noticeably absent from this bill was funding for Trump’s border wall. The president, however, insisted, “This was in no way a concession” and “in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!” Presumably, that means another shutdown will ensue.

Early efforts by Democrats pushed funds for “border security” upwards of $1.5 billion, but President Trump rejected the idea. As the shutdown began, he characterized the Democrats efforts as “obstruction” of the “desperately needed wall.”

During the 35 days of partial government shutdown, approximately 800,000 government employees went without paychecks, half of whom were deemed too essential to governmental operations to be furloughed. This means that they worked without being paid. Many furloughed employees already lived paycheck to paycheck and were forced to find part-time work to make ends meet during the shutdown.

These federal workers are expected to earn back pay—wages lost due to the shutdown—as was the case for past shutdowns. Contract workers do not work directly for the government, so their wages are gone. This could change with the passing of a Democrat-backed bill encouraging agencies and contract companies to reimburse at least some workers’ wages.

The Congressional Budget Office—the nonpartisan budgetary advisory office of the legislative branch—estimates that the U.S. economy lost $11 billion during the shutdown, $3 billion of which will not be recovered with projected GDP growth

The effects of the shutdown are easily seen on the national level, but what did the shutdown mean for Arkansas or the Conway community?

National Parks across the country mostly remained open but went unsupervised. That was the case for Arkansas parks as well. Certain services in Hot Springs National Park were unavailable and some parts of the park itself were closed to the public. The Buffalo National River remained open along with Fort Smith National Historic site grounds and the Pea Ridge National Military Park.

State parks went unaffected because they are state funded. All 52 state parks remained “open and clean,” said Kellie Nichols with Arkansas State Parks.

The United States Department of Agriculture released Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for January using existing funding. February’s SNAP benefits were released early in preparation for a longer shutdown. If an appropriations bill is not signed in the next three weeks, SNAP funding could be put in jeopardy again for the coming months.

Approximately 163,000 people, or 14.3% of Arkansas residents, receive SNAP benefits. In Faulkner County, 4,862 people, or 11.2% of the county, receive SNAP benefits.

As for Conway itself, 2,572 people, or 10.8% of city residents, rely on SNAP benefits. In the coming weeks, those families’ subsistence will hinge on Congress passing a long-term appropriations bill, giving the USDA the funds to keep dispensing SNAP.

By January 4, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had sent out letters to at least 1,500 landlords asking them to refrain from evicting those who live in housing assistance programs. Funding for the Section 8 housing vouchers were depleted due to the shutdown, putting those in federally subsidized housing at risk.

Transportation and Security Administration workers were calling in sick at record rates because they were not being paid, leaving airports across the country scrambling to keep up with security demands.

The Department of Agriculture delayed the release of certain world and domestic crop reports due to the shutdown, causing Arkansas farmers anxiety as these reports provide them with data when planning for planting and harvesting.

The Interior Department also shut its doors to Freedom of Information Act requests. Each year, the department processes over 800,000 requests.

Conway Public Schools were not directly affected by the shutdown according to district communication specialist Heather Kendrick. “What we have seen is an increasing need to support our students and their families as they personally see an impact from the shutdown.”

Parents of Conway students have lost jobs and certain benefits as a result of the shutdown, and the district does what it can to make sure the students themselves continue to get what they need to succeed in school.

“While the school does not have district-run programs to support [the families], we do facilitate and support many programs to help our students, such as our ‘backpack program,’” Kendrick said, “and several of our schools also have food pantries where kids can go and get extra food to eat and take home.”

The situation for Hendrix students was similar according to Hendrix College Associate Vice President for Enrollment and Director of Financial Aid Kristina Burford. “A few of our students did report to our office that closure of local IRS offices caused them delays in obtaining tax documents needed to finalize their financial aid files,” she said.

The Internal Revenue Service ceased certain services during the shutdown, causing stress for those waiting for tax refunds at the beginning of the year. In response to this anxiety, the White House directed the IRS to release tax refunds—breaking with past policies. This brought many furloughed workers back to the office to work without being paid.

Burford also shared information given to them by the Department of Education on Jan. 3. This document stated that Federal Student Aid (FSA) is not directly impacted by the lapse in funding, but some of their systems and processes depend on other federal agencies that were closed.

This slowed the office’s work considerably, but with the government back open, operations should continue as normal.

The shutdown’s effect on the local economy remains unclear. The Conway Chamber of Commerce did not respond to the Profile’s request for comment, but one notable aspect of the shutdown as it pertains to local businesses is the closure of the Small Business Administration offices. This agency processes small business loans that support thousands of entrepreneurs and business people.

The White House insists that the economy on the national level will recover as previously unpaid workers will pump new money into the market, but as previously stated by the CBO, a percentage of the lost commerce is gone for good.

After the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, it’s clear that the country can continue to function in the absence of government funding, at least for five weeks. But for those who work in the halls of the USDA or the janitor closets of the Smithsonian, it’s more than a news headline or a Profile story, it’s their livelihood—it’s their financial security.

While the February 15 deadline might seem like a distant speed bump, it’s more of an impending wall, literally. Republicans in Congress are walking on eggshells when it comes to supporting the president, and Democrats now find themselves unable to budge on the question of wall funding—even if they were so inclined to give it to Trump. Each party stands on the edge of their constituency’s approval, each on their own island of a position.

By the end of the shutdown, however, it seemed more apt to frame the opposition between Congress and President Trump. Several bills to temporarily fund the government made it to Trump’s desk but were denied due to their lack of border-wall funding.

This was advantageous for Democrats, effectively placing the ball in the president’s court. Republicans tried to shift the weight of the stalemate to the Democrats by adding certain protections for Dreamers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to the funding bill, but Democrats waited this offer out.

Trump, however, remains adamant in his campaign promise, tweeting on Jan. 30, “If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!”

Only time will tell if we’ll see a long-term appropriations bill signed by the president. If not, we may be looking at more weeks of uncertainty and anxiety—a shutdown that echoes long enough to affect local operations and institutions.

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