Federal Shutdown

Washington PA Observer Reporter
1 October 2013
By Rick Shrum, Business reporter

Shutdown of the Federal Government is Even Shutting Out Fun.

“The biggest impact is on our recreational sites,” said Dan Jones, public affairs specialist with the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Campgrounds that are not closed for the season are now closed, and we’re notifying people who have reservations or are at campsites (that they cannot be there).”

Recreation reigns near the 16 lakes or reservoirs the corps oversees in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia.

None of those sites is in Washington or Greene counties.

Fun and more serious matters have been suspended or curtailed temporarily by the government shutdown, sparked by a partisan congressional battle over the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a. Obamacare – that was to be implemented Tuesday. National parks and a number of museums were closed, and many federal offices and agencies either ceased or limited their operations.

Essential services will be maintained during the brouhaha over President Obama’s health care law, which already resulted in the furlough of about 800,000 federal employees.

In a message to those employees Tuesday, posted on the Social Security Adminstration website, the president said:

“The federal government is America’s largest employer, with more than 2 million civilian workers and 1.4 million active duty military who serve in all 50 states and around the world.

“But Congress has failed to meet its responsibility to pass a budget before the fiscal year that begins today. And that means much of our government must shut down effective today.

“I want you to know that I will keep working to get Congress to reopen the government, restart vital services that the American people depend on, and allow public servants who have been sent home to return to work. At my direction, your agencies should have reached out to you by now about what a shutdown means for you and your families.”

For the local Corps of Engineers, the shutdown means it will continue to provide essential services such as keeping locks, dams and reservoirs operating.

“We have a responsibility to protect life and the waterways,” Jones said. “But maintenance won’t be done during the shutdown.”

Four sets of locks and dams are along the Monongahela River in the region: North Charleroi, Maxwell, Grays Landing and Point Marion.

Scott Gray, executive director of the Washington County Airport, doesn’t anticipate any of its services being grounded.

“As of now, there is no impact,” Gray said. “The only thing that could happen is our navigational equipment is owned and operated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), and if those folks are furloughed any length of time, maintenace of that equipment could be affected.”

The Social Security Administration has closed its card centers, but its field offices, including the one on West Beau Street in downtown Washington, are open and providing a limited number of services.

Officials at the city office declined comment, but a recording on its phone line advised that “you can access many of our services online at www.soscialsecurity.gov as well as visit the list of limited services available at our field offices.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is a state agency, of course, seemingly unaffected by the shutdown. And in the short term, that likely will be the case.

But Pennsylvania and other states are linked to the federal Environmental Protection Agency is some ways. They have to follow standards the EPA establishes in areas such as air and water quality.

“They are the overriding standardbearer for environmental quality across the country,” said John Poister, spokesman for the DEP’s Southwest Regional office in Pittsburgh.

The EPA, Poister said, also provides “grant fundings for programs mandated by the DEP.” If, for example, there is a shutdown and a mine reclamation matter arose, the state agency would not be able to get federal funding until after the shutdown ends.

Poister added, however, that “we don’t anticipate shutdowns in any programs where we get federal grants because those funds are in a treasury. We get a lump sum and use as needed.”

Otherwise, the DEP spokesman said, “all of our staff is reporting and will be compensated at this time. If this lasts a long time, there may be some issues we may have to look at. But at least for now, we’re fine. There will be no drop in DEP services.”

Some offices in the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, Pittsburgh, were closed Tuesday because of the shutdown. U.S. Attorney David Hickton’s offices were running, but with a diminished workforce.

“People from all job descriptions (are on furlough),” said Leo Dillon, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the office, was among the furloughs, some of which are voluntary. Tuesday, at least, Dillon was assuming her duties – multitasking along with others working there.

“It’s early and the longer this goes on, the more pronounced the effect will be. It’s difficult to operate with a skeletal staff,” Dillon said. “But we will go forward in our dealings with law enforcement, and the court schedule will go forward at least for the immediate future.”

So is the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The center is open even though it is tied to the Smithsonian Institution, whose museums in Washington, D.C., have been shut.

Brady M. Smith, communications manager for the center, said in an email: “The history center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution but we do not receive any federal funding from the Smithsonian or any goverment entities, so our operations won’t be affected by the shutdown.”