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With a possible government shutdown looming, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is backing legislation that would make sure the paychecks for members of Congress stop along with everything else. Although similar measures have been proposed, so far congressional paychecks are still intact.
We addressed this proposal more generally in a separate item. But for this item, we were more interested in checking one of the arguments Stabenow made as she argued for the bill’s passage.
"Lawmakers need to be held accountable and should feel the impact of a government shutdown just like many other Americans will," Stabenow said in a March 1, 2011, news release. "A shutdown could disrupt Social Security checks, veterans' benefits, hold up exports and cost private sector jobs and will stop paychecks for hundreds of thousands of people. It's only fair that members of Congress' paychecks be stopped too."
You can read our analysis of whether a shutdown would endanger Social Security checks in our rating of a statement by President Barack Obama here. In this item, we’ll look what could happen to veterans’ benefits.
First, some background about the laws that govern shutdowns, from a recent briefing paper by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The Constitution (Article I, Sec. 9) says, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." This is reinforced by the Antideficiency Act, which stems from an 1870 law and which has been revised significantly over the years. That act prohibits federal officials from spending money before an appropriations measure has been enacted, though exceptions exist for "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property."
The biggest risk for veterans benefit checks comes from the fact that employees of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs are paid through appropriated funds. So a shutdown could prevent those employees -- just like employees of the Social Security Administration -- from going to work.
How many VA employees would be considered "essential" -- and thus would stay on the job during a shutdown -- and how many would not remains to be seen. Many VA employees are doctors and nurses at VA hospitals and are unlikely to be furloughed. This situation for benefits employees is not yet clear.
As a practical matter, the department has a bit of a cushion. Veterans’ benefit checks go out at the beginning of every month, so if a shutdown starts April 8 -- as would happen if lawmakers cannot agree on a deal -- there wouldn’t be widespread problems for existing beneficiaries for a few weeks. However, if a new month dawned with the government still on hiatus, a new round of checks could indeed be delayed, depending on which employees are deemed "essential."
"If it goes beyond the first of the next month, you may see disruptions there," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. Checks for veterans from the Defense Department would be subject to the same types of uncertainties as those sent by the VA.
In the meantime, two other benefits-related activities could be curtailed by a shutdown, depending on staff availability. Answers to routine inquiries from veterans could be slowed or stopped entirely. And there might be no employees to handle new claims for benefits.
During the last government shutdown in 1995, "more than 400,000 veterans saw their disability benefits and pension claims delayed," Senate Veterans Affairs Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said, according to the Army Times. "Money that they were counting on didn’t come to them. Payment of GI Bill education checks were delayed for hundreds of thousands of our veterans. Telephone calls from our veterans to veterans’ benefits offices went unanswered. Mail from veterans to our VA offices wasn’t opened. It wasn’t answered."
So where does this leave us? By saying that a government shutdown "could disrupt ... veterans' benefits," Stabenow phrased her statement cautiously, and, for the most part, accurately. A shutdown is not destined to disrupt checks to veterans, but it could -- either for new claims, or, if the shutdown drags on long enough, for existing beneficiaries.
Stabenow could have added that a shorter shutdown in line with the duration of those in 1995, or a generous allocation of "essential" employees, could minimize or even eliminate the impact on veterans checks this year. But we think that’s a minor omission, given how carefully she couched her statement. On balance, we rate her comment True.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, "Stopping Paychecks for Members of Congress during Government Shutdown" (news release), March 1, 2011
Federal Times, "Most DoD, VA employees would keep working during a shutdown," accessed April 6, 2011
Army Times, "Murray: Government shutdown would hurt veterans,"
Interview with David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, April 6, 2011
E-mail interview with John M. Palguta, vice president for policy with the Partnership for Public Service, April 6, 2011
Interview with Cullen Schwarz, spokesman for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, April 6, 2011
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