Congress Votes to Avert Shutdown, Avoiding Military Pay Issues

The U.S. Capitol building is lit up with sunlight in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol building is lit up with sunlight in Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2021. (Capt. Joe Legros/U.S. Army National Guard photo)

Congress passed a stopgap spending measure Thursday to keep the government open and prevent a disruption in military pay just hours before a midnight shutdown.

The Senate voted 65-35 for what’s known as a continuing resolution, or CR, which keeps the federal government’s lights on past the end of a fiscal year by maintaining the previous year’s funding levels. The House followed suit a couple of hours later, approving the CR 254-175.

The funding bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it before government funding runs out tonight.

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In addition to funding the government, the CR would provide about $6.3 billion in emergency funding to help resettle Afghans who were evacuated after their country fell to the Taliban in August, including providing $2.2 billion for the Pentagon to support housing evacuees at U.S. military bases.

The bill also includes $28.6 billion in disaster aid, including $565 million for the Navy and $330 million for the Air Force to repair facilities damaged by recent natural disasters.

Because of an unrelated dispute among lawmakers over raising the country’s borrowing limit, Congress approved funding with just hours to spare. The brinkmanship raised fears in recent days of military pay delays, civilian furloughs at the Pentagon and other program disruptions.

“The department must continue operations necessary for the safety of human life or the protection of property, including operations in support of other federal agencies related to individuals evacuated from Afghanistan,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks wrote in a memo last week about a possible shutdown.

During a shutdown, active-duty troops continue to work but don’t receive a paycheck unless separate legislation is passed. That has happened three times since 2013.

Basic pay as well as the housing and subsistence allowances service members depend on can be affected, a congressional aide told Recruiting and retention bonuses could also stop.

“The financial impact to service members, especially junior enlisted living paycheck to paycheck, will be significant,” the aide said.

Reservists who are called up to active duty would have also continued to work during the shutdown without pay, though inactive duty functions would have ceased, according to the Pentagon’s shutdown guidance.

Troops in the Coast Guard, who fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Pentagon, would also stay on duty, with pay dependent on “the timing of the appropriation lapse,” according to agency guidance.

Civilian Pentagon employees with jobs deemed essential, such as employees “necessary to protect life and properly,” could have continued working without pay. More than 350,000 employees were expected to fall into this category, according to the Pentagon guidance.

Another 429,00 civilian Pentagon employees would have faced furloughs, or unpaid time off, according to the guidance.

Permanent changes of station for military and civilian personnel would be limited, while temporary duty travel and conference participation would have been canceled unless it was in direct support of worldwide U.S. military counterterrorism operations, according to the memo. 

Military medical and dental care would continue, though elective procedures are not allowed during shutdowns. Childcare services can also continue, and Defense Department schools can also remain open during a shutdown, but extracurricular activities are not allowed. Almost all commissaries within the United States would close.

Department of Veterans Affairs medical care and benefits processing would have continued, but “administrative work, whistleblower protection efforts and congressional relations would be impacted,” according to a second congressional aide. A third congressional aide said about 96% of VA employees would be able to continue working in a shutdown because some appropriations were approved in advance.

The second aide also highlighted that about a third of the federal workforce is composed of veterans who would be “deeply affected” by a shutdown.

Thursday’s congressional action averts those consequences for now, but lawmakers could be looking at a similar issue in December.

The bill approved Thursday funds the government through Dec. 3, and Congress has made little progress on full-year spending bills to fund the government past then.

In July, the House approved a package of seven spending bills that included VA funding, but it has not taken up the Pentagon spending bill that passed out of the House Appropriations Committee earlier that same month. The Senate has yet to consider any fiscal year 2022 spending bills.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel. 

Related: How a Government Shutdown Impacts Military Pay, Benefits

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