What the US Government Shutdown Means for the Environment

by , 10/01/13

congress, congressional republicans, appropriations spending, federal budget, congressional spending, budget cuts, government shutdown, EPA funding, environmental spending, environmental agencies, health and human services, CDC funding, FDA funding, national park service, department of the interior, NOAAPresident Obama photo via Shutterstock

Department of Energy

Only 1,113 out of the department’s 13,814 employees will be exempted from the shutdown. Their main duties will be to protect and maintain equipment and property, including keeping America’s nuclear reactors running safely. They’ll be keeping a limited staff on hand to deal with questions of waste management, health safety, the stabilization and disposition of nuclear materials, and the management of nuclear weapons.

Health and Human Services

Agencies like the CDC and FDA will continue to operate at a reduced capacity during this time — with about half of the department’s 78,686 employees being asked to stay at home. Any staff who directly serve vulnerable populations will be kept on board, and the FDA will continue to handle emergencies, high-risk recalls, and civil and criminal investigations.

What won’t continue is the CDC’s seasonal flu vaccine program. And any outbreak of a new strain of flu could prove to be disastrous, as the agency’s ability to respond to a crisis or distribute up-to-date treatment information will be significantly delayed. Similarly, the FDA won’t be able to continue food and drug inspections, nor will it be able to maintain most of its current laboratory research until funding resumes. (Labs will be maintained, but the experiments itself will be halted.) Ironically, the health insurance exchange program at the heart of the budget dispute will unroll at the beginning of October as planned.

How Long Will the Shutdown Last?

So far, no one has any idea how long the shutdown might last. Similar shutdowns have occurred 17 times since 1977, but each one was very different. In a best-case scenario, the shutdown may only last a few days and not significantly affect most government functions. (In fact, the shortest shutdowns on record lasted less than a day.) But it could also drag on for weeks until Republicans and Democrats are able to reach a compromise. Because Congress has failed to pass any appropriations bills for the year so far, Senior Republicans have reportedly estimated that the closure will last a week or more.

Depending on how desperate Congress becomes to pass a budget, the effects could be far-reaching — part of the reason for appropriations disputes in recent years has been due to Republicans insisting on deep spending cuts across the board. There are also concerns that the shutdown could end up being just part of a larger battle over the federal debt limit.

The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, spoke for many of us in a recent statement:

“House Republicans have refused to pass routine legislation to fulfill the most basic aspect of their job: keeping the government open and working for American families.

The government shutdown we now face means no cops on the beat against toxic pollution. It means that we’ll have to dress like oil executives if we want to visit our national parks and monuments. It means hundreds of thousands of Americans are at home instead of at work. And it means House Republicans who couldn’t achieve their reckless agenda through elections or legislation are willing to sacrifice the health of our families and our communities to simply score political points.

The Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters agree with President Obama and Senator Reid: any proposal demanding that Americans sacrifice the health of our planet and our communities in exchange for keeping the government open is not a deal, but blackmail of the worst kind. Rather than make the American people pay the cost in lost jobs and polluted air and water, House Republicans need to ditch the political posturing and get back to work.”

Hopefully, this sort of high-profile public pressure will start to get to the Republicans and force them to make reasonable compromises to get the government back up and running as soon as possible.

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  1. roamer October 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Hi Mayer, just a reminder; this is NOT a disagreement on the budget – it is an attempt to stop the affordable health care act, which has already been debated, voted on, passed, and signed into law. This is, in my opinion, a terrorist act by a few very misguided individuals. It is the opposite of Democracy. There are much more important effects than the ones you mentioned, causing real pain and perhaps death to our fellow men and women. I share your hope for a quick end to this.

  2. Mayer Dahan October 3, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    We can all only hope that the US Government will come to an agreement fast. There are far too many people that will be negatively affected by this disagreement on the budget. Because of this failure to decide, we as a nation are losing more money, tourism will decline, and still the issue remains at hand.

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