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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Overstating Impact of Funding Stalemate

Some Democrats overstated the potential impacts of a congressional stalemate that threatens to leave the Department of Homeland Security without funding after Feb. 27.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator will be forced to “furlough something like 80 percent of his FEMA workforce” if Congress fails to pass a funding bill. Johnson did not make clear he was talking about the 4,000-plus FEMA employees who are funded through the annual appropriations process. But that ignores FEMA employees who are funded by fees and multiyear appropriations, as well as thousands of FEMA reservists who are activated during disasters.

In a report issued just prior to a government shutdown in October 2013, DHS said in the event of a funding lapse about 78 percent of FEMA’s 14,729 employees would be retained.

Likewise, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned that a shutdown “could close down ports up and down the East Coast.” But DHS, in that same 2013 report, said 88 percent of  Coast Guard employees were exempt from furloughs, including military members and civilian employees who are “either funded by other than annual appropriations or necessary for the protection of life and property.”

FEMA’s Workforce

Johnson made his remarks on CNN’s “State of the Union” when he was asked about the partisan standoff over the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA. A funding bill drafted by the Republican-controlled Congress includes language that would bar the department from using its funds to carry out President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Democrats oppose the bill and, so far, have succeeded in blocking it.

The department’s funding runs out on Feb. 27, and Johnson warned that FEMA would have to furlough 80 percent of its workers if that happens.

Johnson, Feb. 8: As Craig Fugate, the administrator of FEMA, pointed out the other day, if we go into government shutdown, he’s got to furlough something like 80 percent of his FEMA workforce.

Johnson’s 80 percent estimate overstates the potential impact, and it’s not the first time that the Obama administration has used that figure. It did so in October 2013, when there was a 16-day government shutdown. At that time, Congressional Quarterly ran a story that carried the headline “Shutdown’s Impact on FEMA Overstated.”

Let’s walk through the facts, starting with the department’s own contingency plans for a government shutdown.

DHS produced a report Sept. 27, 2013, called “Procedures Relating to a Federal Funding Hiatus” in anticipation of a government shutdown in 2013. That report said FEMA had 14,729 employees as of July 31, 2013, but 11,468 of those employees would be “retained during a federal funding hiatus.”

Department of Homeland Security, Sept. 27, 2013: FEMA estimates 11,468 employees as the total number exempt and estimated to be retained during a federal funding hiatus. These employees are exempt since they are Presidential appointees, funded by other than annual appropriations, or necessary for the protection of life and property.

That means in the event of another government shutdown, about 78 percent of FEMA’s employees would be retained (albeit without pay) and 22 percent would be furloughed, as the Senate Democrats described in a Feb. 2 fact sheet on the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security: “22% of FEMA staff would be furloughed. While work on current disasters would continue, preparations for future disasters will be significantly delayed.”

The Democrats cited as their source an Oct. 24, 2013, report by the Congressional Research Service that was titled “FY2014 Appropriations Lapse and the Department of Homeland Security: Impact and Legislation.” CRS based the 22 percent figure on the Sept. 27, 2013, DHS report on its procedures for operating during “a federal funding hiatus.”

So what is Johnson talking about?

Johnson is referring to FEMA employees who are funded through the annual appropriations process. That’s more than 4,000 employees, which FEMA administrator Fugate called “permanent employees” in a recent blog warning about the impact of a funding lapse. “That permanent staff serves as our central nervous system, if you will,” as FEMA told us in an email.

But that’s not all of “FEMA workforce,” to use Johnson’s words.

Johnson was excluding, for example, FEMA employees “paid for by fee revenues and multi‐year appropriations,” as explained in the CRS report. That would include employees in these FEMA programs: Disaster Relief Operations, National Flood Insurance Program, Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program and Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program, the CRS report said.

The Disaster Relief Operations includes thousands of reservists who are called up to aide in disasters, so FEMA still has the ability to respond to disasters during a funding lapse. As of February 2013, FEMA had “6,795 reservists, who constituted 36 percent of FEMA’s disaster workforce,” according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Also, the FEMA administrator retains the ability to recall some FEMA employees in cases of emergency, as he did in 2013. CRS noted in its report that “roughly 200 FEMA employees were recalled when Tropical Storm Karen threatened the Gulf Coast during the funding lapse” in October 2013.

The DHS report also said that in the event of an interruption in funding FEMA would continue to process disaster payments.

Johnson was correct when he told CNN’s Dana Bash that a lapse in funding “means furloughing at least 30,000 of our department” employees. DHS estimated that 31,295 of its employees would be furloughed during a government shutdown in 2013, according to CRS. But to put that in context, that was only 13.5 percent of the department’s 231,117 employees.

Closing Down Ports?

Also sounding a false alarm was Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She warned that a shutdown “could close down ports up and down the East Coast.”

Mikulski made the claim during a news conference held by Senate Democrats on Feb. 5 (from Political Transcript Wire, accessed via Nexis).

Mikulski, Feb. 5: No, literally: If this goes to shutdown, this could close down ports up and down the East Coast, because if you don’t have a Coast Guard, you don’t have the ports. You don’t have the ports, you don’t have an economy. This isn’t just political posturing, this is enormously significant.

But if an impasse leads to the lapse of funding for Homeland Security, the Coast Guard would not fold up shop, nor would the ports.

In the event of a funding lapse, DHS says employees whose jobs are deemed “necessary for safety of human life or protection of property” are expected to continue working. That includes all Coast Guard activities related to military/defense operations, maritime security and maritime safety.

In the report issued just prior to a government shutdown in October 2013, DHS estimated that 43,736 out of 49,698 Coast Guard employees (about 88 percent) were exempt from the furlough. DHS noted that military members are exempt from furlough, and civilian employees are exempt if they are “either funded by other than annual appropriations or necessary for the protection of life and property.”

In addition, the Pay Our Military Act signed into law just prior to the shutdown “returned almost 5,800 furloughed Coast Guard civilian employees to work and restored pay for active military personnel and the civilian federal employees and the contractors that support them,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.

As Voice of America reported on the first day of the 2013 shutdown, “Work will continue as usual for most Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection employees, airport screening officers, U.S. Secret Service agents, and other people in passenger processing and cargo inspection at ports of entry and the detention of drug traffickers or undocumented immigrants.”

The Journal of Commerce noted that 48 hours into the 2013 shutdown, shippers were reporting brief delays at U.S. ports of entry. But that wasn’t because of furloughed Coast Guard employees. Rather, the Journal said, “Shipments requiring paperwork from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture, which face severe staff reductions because of the shutdown, have been delayed several hours.”

So, there were delays but ports were hardly “closed down.” In fact, Logistics Management reported that in October 2013, volumes at United States-based retail container ports were expected to increase 9.1 percent annually as retailers prepared for the holiday season, according to the Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

This is not the first time we found Democrats twisting the facts in this funding fight.

On Jan. 29, the president quoted a Republican as saying it’s “not the end of the world” to “have the Department of Homeland Security not functioning.” As we wrote at the time,  the congressman actually said Homeland Security would still function even if Congress fails to meet a funding deadline, so it would not be “the end of the world” to miss the deadline. In a speech four days later, Obama was more careful when he again cited the Republican quote, adding that “until they pass a funding bill, it is the end of a paycheck for tens of thousands of frontline workers who will continue to get — to have to work without getting paid.”

We take no position on the partisan fight over the appropriations bill. And we have no doubt that a funding hiatus would cause great disruption in the department’s operations. But Johnson overstated the impact of the potential funding lapse by excluding thousands of FEMA employees from his definition of the “FEMA workforce,” including those poised to respond to disasters. And Mikulski exaggerated when she suggested that the U.S. Coast Guard would cease operating and U.S. ports could shut down.

— Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley