Certain Valley residents will suffer if the federal government shuts down Friday night — had they planned to get a passport, visit area national parks or close federally backed home loans anytime soon.
Some federal employees locally could even be furloughed.
A shutdown of the federal government Friday at 11 p.m. local time — midnight in Washington, D.C. — would cause processing delays or office closures — even if some services continue uninterrupted, officials warn.
Thursday, congressional lawmakers went back and forth as they struggled to agree on a federal funding bill. Now they must pass a bill before Friday’s deadline to avert a shutdown.
One of the most visible federal forces here, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue to operate as will other government functions deemed imperative to the public’s safety.
However, non-essential services would be stopped. Passports and visas will probably be delayed, federal loan processes would be put on hold and nearby national parks would close. Other services like Medicaid and Social Security payments will continue, and the potential shutdown won’t keep income tax filings from being due April 18.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, said the funding bill passed by the House on Thursday afternoon, which funds the military through the fiscal year, and the government for another seven days, was an effort to stop the shutdown. But, he said, a shutdown was still a possibility because the bill must proceed to the Senate and onto the desk of President Barack Obama.
“I put it at 50-50,” Farenthold said of a shutdown late Thursday afternoon. “You got the House working real hard to find a way to keep the government operating, but we are one half of one third of the government. We can’t make the Senate or the President do anything.”
Farenthold said most federal agencies have a contingency plan in the event of closure, but it’s the estimated 800,000 federal workers nationwide who would potentially be furloughed without pay who are a major concern.
“Do you pay them for not working?” he said. “That doesn’t sound like the fiscally responsible thing to do, but they’ve also planned their lives based on having a job and they have bills to pay too. I haven’t made up my mind on that one yet.”
As to whether or not Congress will continue to be paid, he said: “They’ll be nobody to write the checks to pay us. Writing our paychecks is probably a non-essential function. ... I suspect we will have to pay ourselves for the time worked during the shutdown.”
CHANCES OF DELAYS
Passport processing delays are a possibility, said Arnold Robles, the passport acceptance agent at the Brownsville Main Post Office.
After applications move on from local entities to federal offices, the paperwork may be “put aside until about a week,” he said.
“We’ve received no emails from Houston,” Robles said. “We’ve been told nothing, so we’ll continue accepting applications.”
Mail delivery through the U.S. Postal Service will continue and passport processing will also continue at the Cameron County District Clerk’s Office.
Federal authorities have said there are two categories that are exceptions to the shutdown: federal agencies that provide safety and those with revenue streams not tied up in the current budget that lawmakers are jockeying over.
It is widely reported that Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs have different revenue structures outside of the current budget, so their services will remain unaffected. Social Security checks will continue to go out because of its automated system, but new claims may be delayed.
IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told the media that tax refunds will go out for those who filed electronically. However, in the event of a shutdown, taxpayers who filed paper returns may see delays.
Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said entitlements like Medicaid and food stamps won’t stop. Those programs are federally funded, but distributed through the state, she explained.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program or Children’s Medicaid are not within the same scenario, she said, and the HHSC is monitoring the situation.
“The real issue is federal funding,” Goodman said. “The state can’t deliver benefits if the funds aren’t there.”
The state may have to step in to continue to deliver CHIP, but there are enough funds for at least 30 days of a federal government shutdown, she said.
Federal courts will not close, clerks at the Brownsville Division and Houston Division of the federal Southern District of Texas said.
Agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration would still be in full effect, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspectors.
The military will continue to work too, but troops will receive their paychecks later.
Certain government departments will shut down completely.
The Federal Housing Administration would stop processing loan guarantees, affecting about 30 percent of the housing market, and the Small Business Administration would stop processing direct small business loans.
Federal websites, officials reported, will not be updated unless deemed essential.
Outdoor enthusiasts should make their peace with area national parks before Friday night just in case the government shuts down.
Mark Spier, superintendent of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, said he believed a federal funding bill might be passed before the deadline, but in the event of a shutdown all visitors would be literally locked out.
“People would be given 48 hours to make alternate arrangements and asked to leave,” he said. “They would have to vacate the premises because the parks that have campgrounds would be physically closed to the public. ... It’s like trying to stop a train, it takes a little while. So, we’re obviously preparing for that.”
Nancy Brown, a public outreach specialist for the South Texas Refuge Complex — which includes the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Los Fresnos, as well as the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Santa Ana refuges — said the parks would be closed.
The South Texas Refuge Complex falls under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She said all non-essential employees would be furloughed, but couldn’t give more details.
“In all honesty we’re preparing for a shutdown,” Brown said. “We’ve got nothing.”
Jacqueline Armendariz is a reporter for The Brownsville Herald.