30K furloughs imminent if Congress can’t pass DHS spending bill

By Sean McCalley
and the Associated Press

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will have to furlough at least 30,000 employees if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill to cover DHS funding beyond Feb. 27. Those furloughs could still happen if Congress decides to kick the can and pass another continuing resolution, the agency’s Chief Financial Officer Chip Fulghum told Federal News Radio.

Those furloughs could include 80 percent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s workforce, Johnson said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Chip Fulghum, chief financial officer, DHS
In the event of a shutdown, Johnson’s plan would draw on his contingency plan for the shutdown in 2013. That plan still required large portions of the agency to keep coming to work, but without pay. Specifically, that includes about 90 percent of border control agents, 85 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and 93 percent of Transportation Security Administration officials.

“Yes, it is that big of a deal,” said Johnson, when asked if that contingency plan would matter to most of his agency.

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Furloughs and loss of pay would also extend to DHS contractors, said Fulghum. “Contractors, subcontractors … depending on how the contract is structured, would be sent home,” he said.

To hear Democrats and many Republicans tell it, the result would be unacceptable risks to U.S. security at a time of grave threats worldwide. In reality, though, most people will see little change if the department’s money flow is halted, and some of the warnings of doom are as exaggerated as they are striking.

“There are ghoulish, grim predators out there who would love to kill us or do us harm,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We should not be dillydallying and playing parliamentary pingpong with national security.”

Chip Fulghum, chief financial officer, DHS

In the view of some House conservatives, though, shutting off the agency’s $40 billion budget for a time “is obviously not the end of the world,” as Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., put it, because many agency employees would stay at work through a shutdown.

Who’s right, and what would the impact be if Congress were to let money for the department lapse?

Salmon and a few other conservatives are the only ones saying it publicly so far, but the reality is that a department shutdown would have a very limited impact on national security.

That’s because most department employees fall into exempted categories of workers who stay on the job in a shutdown because they perform work considered necessary to protect human life and property. Even in a shutdown, most workers across agencies, including the Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Customs and Border Protection, would continue to report to work.

Airport security checkpoints would remain staffed, the Secret Service would continue to protect the president and other dignitaries, the Coast Guard would stay on patrol, and immigration agents would still be on the job.

Indeed, of the agency’s approximately 230,000 employees, some 200,000 of them would keep working even if Congress fails to fund their agency. It’s a reality that was on display during the 16-day government-wide shutdown in the fall of 2013, when national parks and monuments closed but essential government functions kept running, albeit sometimes on reduced staff.

So what of the sometimes overheated rhetoric, often from Democrats?

“If this goes to shutdown,” Mikulski said, “this could close down ports up and down the East Coast, because if you don’t have a Coast Guard, you don’t have the ports. You don’t have the ports, you don’t have an economy.”

But if the department loses its money, the Coast Guard will stay in operation and so will the ports.

There would be one big change, though. Most workers would not get paid until the shutdown ends, a circumstance guaranteed to put pressure on members of Congress hearing from constituents angry about going without their paychecks.

Making employees come to work without pay is “a real challenge” for them, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Chip Fulghum, chief financial officer, DHS

Workers at agencies funded by fees, instead of by congressional appropriations, would continue their functions while still drawing a paycheck.

It so happens that applies to the very employees charged with putting in place the immigration programs at the heart of the political dispute.

Fees pay the salaries of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workers who would process applications from immigrants eligible to work lawfully in the country under President Barack Obama’s immigration policies. Even though Republicans are so determined to shut down Obama’s program that some are willing to risk Homeland Security money to do it, it would stay up and running with little impact in the event of a shutdown.

So who would stop working in a shutdown? Mostly administrative staff, including support workers at headquarters and personnel who do training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, employees involved in research and development, and those responsible for operating and maintaining the E-Verify system that allows businesses to check the immigration status of new hires.

In addition, all personnel involved in administering grants would be furloughed, including Federal Emergency Management Agency workers who make grants to state and local governments, fire departments, and others to help them prepare for or respond to various threats and emergencies. That has led to pleas to Congress from the mayors, among others, to keep Homeland Security Department funding going.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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