An array of federal agencies are escaping the government shudown -- at least for now
Last Updated: 69 days ago
WASHINGTON - It's a cash-and-carry-on situation for many parts of the otherwise shuttered federal government as agencies supported by fees or special tax trust funds stay in business with no furloughs even as many other federal agencies have gone dark.
While most of the government functions considered exempt or essential and still running since Oct. 1 have to do with preserving public health or safety, protecting public property or maintaining essential infrastructure like the nation's money and banking systems, quite a few agencies or parts of them, remain at full strength simply because they're entirely or mostly paid for with dedicated taxes, user fees and other revenues not part of appropriations from Congress.
And an array of others -- some well-known, others obscure -- are able to keep the lights on for a while because they have money carried over from the past fiscal year, which ended Monday. (It is agencies that depend on money allocated to them by Congress that are all-but entirely closed.)
This have-and-have-not fiscal situation has created some odd contrasts:
For instance, the Federal Highway Administration, part of the Department of Transportation but funded through a special federal pot of money from fuel and vehicle-related taxes, is at full strength with 2,914 workers and all operations normal. So are the 1,100 workers of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, whose operations are paid for by a trust fund.
But the independent National Transportation Safety Board has furloughed much of its 400-strong staff, so many that it had no highway accident investigators available to send to the scene of a fatal bus crash on a Tennessee interstate Wednesday.
The Food and Drug Administration has more than 6,000 people still on the job out of more than 14,000, with some paid through a fund supported by user fees paid by the medical device and pharmaceutical industries.
But at the National Institutes of Health, most of the 18,000 researchers and support staff who research new treatments for cancer and other diseases have been laid off, and no new studies are being scheduled. About 200 patients who were to start new clinical trials are out of luck, at least for now. About 4,100 workers are left to care for existing patients, lab animals and equipment.
Then there's the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which is partly closed during the day, but still able to put on performances during the evenings, since they're supported by ticket sales and private donations. But Ford's Theater, as a national historic site run by the U.S. Park Service, has had to cancel all shows.
Many other federal operations, such as national parks, forests and range lands, also charge fees, but permission to stay open is generally only granted them when that money covers all costs. And for some entities, the fees may only keep them running for a short period of time, perhaps a few weeks. If the budget impasse drags on, they, too, will be forced to close or cut operations.
For example, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has said it has enough money from court filing and other fees to keep judicial operations going for about 10 business days. If the shutdown continues, a reassessment will be done around Oct. 15. The U.S. Supreme Court has only committed to staying open through Friday; its new term begins Monday.
Most of the 12,000 workers at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, are still on the job because the operations are financed by fees paid by applicants.
State Department officials said passport processing would continue, as well as other essential diplomatic operations, partly because fees cover most of the passport work.
And while most food and meat inspectors working for the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are staying on the job because their work is considered essential to public safety, USDA grain inspectors are doubly exempt since their program is funded by user fees.
Among the other federal operations that are more or less self-sustaining in the shutdown, at least for now:
-- The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where officials say there's enough in a fund from fees to continue for several weeks.
-- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees everything from electric grids to oil pipeline rates, remains open since it recovers all its annual appropriation from Congress through annual charges and filing fees.
-- The St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation has its entire 125-person staff sustained through a special reserve fund that's not part of the appropriations system.
Then there's the financial regulatory world, areas that wield substantial influence on the economy, where most work will continue. The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will continue to operate normally no matter how long the shutdown lasts.
The Fed operates on interests from its assets. The FDIC and the Comptroller are fiscally fueled by fees charged to financial institutions. And the new Consumer Financial Protection bureau is funded by the Fed, so it remains open.
However, the Federal Trade Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission are largely closed, except for some law enforcement and legal cases at the FTC.
But the Securities and Exchange Commission remains open for now, with enough carryover funds to keep it going for "a few weeks."
(Contact Scripps national correspondent Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com.)
Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.