Shutdown looms as Congress faces spending deadlines

Most agencies are still operating under shutdown plans crafted under the Trump administration, but there are provisions for continuing pandemic programs and operations.

US Congress House side Shutterstock photo ID: 156615524 By mdgn editorial use only

The U.S. government is teetering on the edge of another fiscal cliff. Congress has about a week to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a partial government shutdown and must also pass a bill to suspend or expand the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on obligations when cash reserves run out – sometime in October, according to estimates from the Treasury Department.

House Democrats passed their version of the bill on September 21, on a 220-211 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes to bring the bill up on September 27, but prospects for its passage are dimmed by stated opposition from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is opposed to the legislation, and wants the continuing resolution and debt limit extension split into two different bills so that his conference can vote for a continuing resolution while requiring Democrats to pass a debt limit extension on their own.

Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Abdullah Hassan said Thursday that while the administration "fully expect[s]" a bill to pass before a lapse in appropriations, "prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse in funding."

He added: "Consistent with long-standing practice across multiple administrations, OMB is preparing for any contingency, and determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed by agencies,”

Only a handful of agencies have updated their shutdown plans since the Biden administration took office. These include the Departments of Justice and the Treasury, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Department of Health and Human Services last updated its shutdown guidance in September 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. HHS will "continue any COVID-19 activities supported by multiyear funding provided in the emergency supplemental appropriations bills," that document states.

Many activities at the Food and Drug Administration are fee-funded, and won't be affected by a shutdown, and some employees there are also shielded from furloughs because their work is deemed necessary for the safety of human life. The Centers for Disease Control would retain 38% of its staff in the event of a shutdown through different exemptions and exceptions.

"Direct public health efforts can generally proceed during a shutdown because they're exempt, and that is certainly our intention….but large swaths of the federal government coming to a screeching halt will, certainly, not be beneficial to pandemic response," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during her Sept. 23 briefing.

The federal cybersecurity workforce will also face large-scale furloughs in the event of a shutdown. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will retain only about 17% of its workforce under a lapse in appropriations – 356 employees out of the 2,110 who were on board as of Oct. 24, 2020. CISA currently employs 2,345 feds, according to June 2021 data from the Office of Personnel Management.