Tribes feeling effects of government shutdown

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2013

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(Times photo - Donovan Quintero)

Navajo police officer Jacob Keah-tigh writes out a report Tuesday afternoon outside the Navajo Nation Detention Center in Window Rock after dropping off three people for public intoxication. While government agencies like the national parks in Ganado and in Chinle had to close due to the government shutdown, police and hospitals were not affected by it and are fully operational.

Tribes across the country are feeling the impact of the partial government shutdown, which started Tuesday when Congress failed to agree on appropriations bills, spending priorities and the Affordable Care Act, which also went into effect Tuesday.

The House and the Senate every year are supposed to agree on 12 appropriations bills to fund federal agencies, but in recent years Congress has resorted to stopgap budgets to keep the government funded. The last stopgap passed March 28 and expired Monday.

In a speech at the White House just hours before the shutdown began, President Barack Obama warned that it would have "very real economic impact on real people, right away."

He also scolded Congressional Republicans who are using the debate to stall the Affordable Care Act. The shutdown occurs as Republicans demand that the Affordable Care Act -- also known as ObamaCare -- be delayed or repealed. Obama and Democrats, meanwhile, are refusing to compromise.

A government shutdown means non-essential programs are closed and non-essential employees are furloughed. More than 800,000 federal employees were sent home without pay Tuesday. That's more than one-fourth of the federal workforce.

The lights are still on at the Navajo Nation Washington Office, however, Executive Director Clara Pratte said.

"The Navajo Nation is open, we're continuing to work, we're getting services to people," she said. "The problem is that when we need a federal counterpoint, there's no one on the other end of the phone."

In anticipation of the shutdown -- the first since the mid-1990s -- the federal Office of Management and Budget instructed all departments to prepare contingency plans.

As of Tuesday, nearly 59,000 Interior Department employees were furloughed. That's 80 percent of the department. According to the Interior Department's contingency plan, all national parks and wildlife refuges systems are closed and public access is restricted. The Bureau of Land Management also has terminated all non-emergency activities on public lands.

Additionally, most activities at the Bureau of Indian Affairs' regional and headquarters offices are suspended, though essential programs will continue to be funded, including law enforcement and programs that protect life and property.

A total of 2,500 BIA employees are furloughed, though 666 law enforcement personnel and 446 other employees are exempt. The Bureau of Indian Education planned to furlough 180 employees.

The Navajo Nation Washington Office on Tuesday sent a memo to the Nation's three branch chiefs, outlining expected closures. BIA activities that have ceased include federal oversight on environmental and archeological assessments, natural resource management and disbursements of funds for tribal operations. No new funds will be available to support the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, but existing inventory may be available for use during the shutdown.

"What may happen is that the Navajo Nation may choose to self-fund some of these programs until the shutdown is over," Pratte said. "There may be some emergency appropriations with the hope that we can get reimbursed later."

Programs that will not be affected include mail delivery, medical care, food stamps, Social Security and Medicare. Although national parks and forests are closed, Navajo Nation parks will remain operational providing they have funds to do so.

The Navajo Nation Washington Office recommends rescheduling meetings with federal agencies or staff.

"We don't know how long this is going to last," Pratte said. "It could last two days or two weeks. If it lasts more than a month we're going to start having issues with basic services."

The last time the government shut down -- for a total of 27 days in December 1995 and January 1996 -- it cost the country about $1.4 billion. According to early estimates, this shutdown is costing as much as $12.5 million per hour. The cost is calculated from lost productivity, wages, taxes and other factors that make up the country's economic output.

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