The federal government is poised—once again—to shut down many services if Congress can’t agree on a plan to keep the lights on. Here’s how it’s happening, and how it might impact the Forty Acres.
The House and Senate have to pass a bill to fund the federal government. Which, while rather fundamental-sounding, seems to be a sticking point for many members of Congress. If they can’t agree on a funding scheme, the federal government shuts down on October 1. At the moment, they’re slap-fighting and speechifying about funding (or not funding) the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare.
Not every government function would screech to a complete stop, but hundreds of national parks, museums, passport offices, and yes, the Department of Education are likely to shutter their offices.
Why would Congress dance so close to the edge of closing all those doors? Partisan fights have overshadowed the debates over basic government-funding bills in recent years, forcing Congress to pass very short-term stopgap measures called continuing resolutions. The last one was passed in March. With that resolution set to expire on September 30, the House passed a new resolution that stripped funding from ObamaCare, a move that neither the Democratically-controlled Senate nor the President himself is likely to accept. The Senate would prefer to pass one with the ObamaCare funding, which then has to be reconsidered by the House.
And that’s why we have ourselves a showdown and, possibly, a shutdown.
If it happens, it won’t be that bad immediately for higher education. “No one knows for certain,” says Bill Shute, the UT System’s vice chancellor for federal relations, “but the impact should be minimal.” He says the shutdown could still be avoided, and notes that while functions at the federal level may slow, higher education as we know it will not grind to a halt.
New applications for research funding and financial aid may stall during the shutdown, but existing funding schemes will continue to flow. Research funding, for example, is usually funded a year in advance. So, while the shutdown will mean certain federal employees will be placed on leave, and headaches will certainly ensue, the sum of the damages is likely to be low. Before a narrowly-avoided 2011 shutdown, the Chronicle of Higher Education looked back to the longest previous cessation of services, in 1995:
During that 21-day shutdown, which spanned late 1995 and early 1996, federal contractors and servicers weren’t paid, and questions submitted to the Education Department went unanswered. New regulations were postponed, and federal audits and program reviews were suspended.
But three months after the shutdown ended, “any trace of it had pretty much disappeared—like water poured into sand,” said Terry W. Hartle, vice president for government and public affairs for the American Council on Education.
Shute agrees, saying existing programs will continue relatively smoothly, unless of course you urgently need to call a furloughed Department of Education employee. “If it’s already in place,” he says, “it won’t be a problem.” Current indications point to a shorter shutdown, if any.
“By late Sunday,” he predicts, “we should know more.”
It’s not the shutdown that’s worrying experts. It’s what might happen after. Even if Congress avoids or quickly ends the shutdown, lingering fiscal quarrels are likely to slow, confound, or otherwise annoy higher education administrators and officials over the coming weeks. Congress is likely to only pass a stopgap spending measure—one that will fail to alleviate the sequester cuts impacting financial aid and research funding. And there’s more. Here’s Inside Higher Ed‘s Michael Stratford:
Compounding the problem further are negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department says the government will hit on October 17. If the government were to run out of money to pay its obligations, higher education advocates worry that federal student aid and research funding would take a hit as the government chooses which bills to pay.
“Nobody comes out of any these debates and bills and says, ‘we did a great job’,” said Jonathan Fansmith, the associate director of government relations at the American Council on Education, lamenting the uncertainty surrounding short-term temporary funding compromises and stopgap measures. “There’s no good policy being made, it’s simply a sort of triaging of problems month to month, year to year.”
Photo courtesy Ken Lund via Flickr Creative Commons.