Vets Benefits, Military Pay Would Likely Continue in Shutdown
The threat of a government shutdown next month due to a back-and-forth between the White House and Congress over the budget, the debt ceiling and the border wall has once again raised the issue of whether veterans benefits and military pay would be protected.
The last time a government shutdown briefly loomed in April over the budget and Congressional continuing resolutions, Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin stressed that there would be no impact on veterans benefits because of the way the VA is funded.
At the time, Shulkin said a shutdown posed "no risk to veterans," and told CBS, "The VA is in a fortunate situation in that we have what's called an advanced appropriations so we get our money a year ahead of time because I think Congress understands that the VA can't shut down, that we are there for the safety of our veterans."
However, in the last government shutdown which ran Oct. 1-16, 2013, then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki warned that checks to 5.1 million veterans might not go out if the shutdown lasted into late October.
The 2013 shutdown began with a fight in Congress over funding of the Affordable Care Act that led to Congress' failure to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2013. According to Standard & Poor's, the 2013 shutdown cost the government $24 billion, or about $1.5 billion daily.
Military pay is another matter.
The long-standing guidance from the Pentagon's Defense Finance and Accounting Service is clear: The Defense Department "will have no legal authority to pay military members or civilian employees for the days during which the government is shut down."
However, in past shutdowns Congress has come up with workarounds -- at least for those in uniform -- to keep the paychecks flowing. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said when a shutdown seemed possible during his tenure, Congress should take heed to "pay the guys with guns first" to avoid the political fallout.
Just before the government shutdown began in 2013, President Barack Obama signed an emergency bill to continue paying the troops for however long the shutdown lasted.
Civilian employees of the Defense Department were among the 800,000 government workers who were furloughed during the 2013 shutdown, except for those whose duties were deemed to be critical. The government employees received back pay once the shutdown ended.
Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis said that the current threat of a shutdown would likely be avoided once Congress returns from recess after Labor Day.
"It's something to watch out for," he said but "there'll be something done. We're not up in arms in advance."
Congress will also have to decide on the next pay raise for the military in 2018. The White House has proposed a 2.1 percent pay increase for the troops, and House Republican leaders have proposed a 2.4 percent increase.
In late June, a group of House Democrats proposed the "Give Our Troops A Raise Act" which would boost military pay by 2.9 percent. One of the sponsors, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said in a statement:
"Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deserve pay increases that are competitive with opportunities in the private sector and that better reflect the gravity of their sacrifices on behalf of our nation."
Once Congress returns, lawmakers will have until Oct. 1 to pass a spending bill and also will have to lift the debt ceiling by late September to allow the government to continue borrowing money to pay its debts.
"It's completely unpredictable" whether Congress will be able to reach agreement, Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget, told The Washington Post. In addition, negotiations on possible agreements "just got a mini-bomb tossed into it," MacGuineas said.
She referred to President Donald Trump's threat of a shutdown unless Congress comes up with the money to pay for his promised border wall, which he said during the campaign that Mexico would pay for.
At a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, the president said, "We are building a wall on the southern border, which is absolutely necessary."
He added, "Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me, if we have to close down our government, we are building that wall."
In May, Trump's 2018 budget proposal for border security asked for $2.6 billion, of which $1.6 billion would go to begin construction for a southern border wall.
At a White House briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was serious on getting funding for the wall.
"He campaigned on the wall," she said, "and he's going to make sure that gets done. He's going to continue to fight for that funding." She deflected questions on Mexico paying for it.
Since 1976, there have been seven shutdowns which led to federal employees being furloughed. During the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, there were three brief shutdowns lasting a day.
In 1990, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, there was a weekend shutdown. In the administration of former President Bill Clinton, there was a shutdown lasting five days in 1995 and one lasting 21 days in 1996. The next shutdown was in 2013.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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