Shutdown tightens grip on federal agencies

Dozens of federal agencies are operating with a barebones staff and halting all but their most critical services, as the strain caused by the government shutdown begins to show.

Officials and outside advocates say that the government’s ability to protect public health and the safety of everything from food to nuclear facilities is at risk. They also assert that regulators are hamstrung to both prevent new threats and investigate past disasters.

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“The fact that the government, which is a major part of our society and the glue that holds us together in some ways and provides for the common good, is not operating is a travesty,” said Peg Seminario, the director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned the public about a salmonella outbreak that has caused nearly 300 illnesses in 18 states.

While most of the department’s food safety office is on the job through the shutdown, more than two-thirds of the workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), which is teaming up with state officials to monitor the outbreak, are furloughed. Some employees have since been called back to the job to deal with the outbreak.

Democrats say that the lack of health officials should convince Republicans to agree to fund the government at higher spending levels. 

“The fact that CDC had to call back furloughed employees who were needed to help investigate the outbreak demonstrates the dangers the Republican shutdown is having on public health,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a longtime food safety advocate, on Wednesday.

Republicans in the House, meanwhile, have attempted to quell concerns about food safety, veterans’ benefits and other visible signs of the shutdown with a series of bills to fund specific agencies and government programs.

More broadly, some conservatives have argued that the effects of the shutdown are being exaggerated or that agencies are electing to shutter their highest-profile projects in order to ratchet up pressure for a resolution.

Democrats have rejected the piecemeal funding measures. Instead, they want a comprehensive spending bill.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for most food safety inspections, but the nation relies on the combined efforts of more than a dozen other agencies to track illnesses, monitor imports, check seafood and regulate pesticides.

All of those agencies have been affected by the shutdown to different degrees.

“The American public expects that the government will be on the job making sure what they buy in their stores is safe. And that’s really questionable right now,” said Scott Slesinger, the legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The National Institutes of Health has had to turn away an estimated 200 patients each week who would otherwise be accepted to its Clinical Center, including dozens of children, some with cancer.

Regulators making sure workers are not exposed to dangers on the job have also been sidelined by the shutdown. 

About 90 percent of the workers at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have been kept away from their jobs, as have most employees at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“Workers are less safe,” Seminario said. “That’s a very troubling situation.”

Over three days last week, three coal miners were killed in equipment accidents, the first time three miners were killed in three days since 2002.

The head of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, said that it was “extremely troubling” that those deaths occurred mere days after the government shutdown took mine safety inspectors off the job.

Multiple examinations have been halted by the drying up of congressional appropriations.   

On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it would delay a hearing to investigate the July crash of an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco.

The Chemical Safety Board has also suspended its investigation of the April explosion of a fertilizer facility in West, Texas, and the board’s head said on Tuesday that it would have “no ability to respond” to a new chemical disaster.

Fishing and tour guides who usually lead clients on fishing trips into national parks are fearing major losses because the shutdown has closed those areas.

Some Republicans have claimed that parks and wildlife regulators have been quick to close the public lands to make the effects of the shutdown seem as painful as possible.

 “You have denied access and closed lands that Alaskans depend on, and which are legally required to remain open,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday. “We urge you to immediately revoke your agency’s current order and closures and to fully afford Alaskans the rights granted to them under federal law.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had to furlough about 95 percent of its staff because of the shutdown, potentially delaying a number of high-profile regulations.

The EPA’s shutoff is also trickling down to state regulators funded by the agency.

In Wyoming, for example, about half the state environmental personnel are off the job because federal money did not come in after Oct. 1, Slesinger said.

Federal funds for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Head Start, Meals on Wheels and other safety-net programs have been tied up in the shutdown. Many states are running on contingency funds for the time being, but a prolonged shutdown would jeopardize the programs and deprive low-income Americans of the services they provide.

The magnitude of the shutdown’s effects partly depends on how long it lasts.

If the shutdown stretches to November, the government will stop making payments to 3.8 million veterans, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a House panel on Wednesday.

Some agencies, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), have been able to forestall serious cuts to service by relying on “rainy day” funds.

The NRC’s money will run out after Thursday evening, however, at which point about 90 percent of its workers will be sent home. Routine inspections will be allowed to continue, but if a serious incident were to occur, furloughed staffers might have to be called back to work.

NRDC senior attorney Geoff Fettus said that the agency’s response could be similar to how the CDC is scrambling to contain the salmonella outbreak.

“No one knows what’s going to happen day by day at each plant across the country, and nobody can really forecast that,” he said. “But the longer this goes on, it certainly could compromise the safety processes that protect public health and safety.”

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