We don’t usually encourage readers to panic – but the sky just might be falling this time.
If Congressional leaders don’t pass a federal budget by Monday, the federal government will shut down and, among other things, military members will not be paid. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Congress has played this particular game of chicken five times in the last two years:
● April 2011 – A nail-biting last-minute deal was reached to keep the government open by using a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution.
● August 2011 – During that battle, Republicans demanded spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling. Another 11th-hour deal averted default, but the U.S. credit rating was downgraded anyway, and the real debate was pushed to the future. (And that ‘future’ is now, by the way.) This was the deal that created the sequester.
● September 2011 – Just one month after the last battle, another battle over spending nearly led to a government shutdown. The September 2011 threats revolved around the amount of disaster relief funding. Congress reached an agreement that reduced the amount of disaster relief for states.
● December 2012– This time the phrase everyone used was “fiscal cliff” and the issue was the culmination of ad-hoc agreements from all the previous government shutdown debates. Congress agreed to raise some taxes and raise the debt limit, but allowed forced spending cuts — the sequester — to go into effect.
● March 2013 – This debate ultimately resulted in the debate we’re having right now, yielding a spending bill that kept the government open until September 30 and allowing for deep budget cuts that trimmed $85 billion for the remainder of the year – and $1 trillion over 10 years – from military and domestic programs. But because the spending bill only covered the government through September, we’re having to deal with it all again now.
And now many experts say an agreement is unlikely, with some even saying there’s a 70 percent chance of a government shut down next week. If all of this makes your head feel like it’s going to explode, you’re in good company. That’s why we decided to answer some questions for you:
Why is this happening?
Right now the Republicans in Congress have agreed to allow only a version of the Federal Budget that does not provide funding for the Affordable Healthcare Act, aka Obamacare, to pass. At the same time, the Democrats have said they will only allow a version that funds Obamacare to pass. The two sides can’t seem to find a compromise and, if they don’t find one before the end of the month, there will be no budget.
Can the Federal Government really shut down?
Yes, the Federal Government really can shut down, and has several times before. Between 1977 and 1980 the federal government shut down six times, ranging from three days to 17 days, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and nine times between 1981 and 1996. A shutdown stretching from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996 lasted 21 days – the longest in modern history. During those 21 days all federal employees received no pay for their work, and needed items – like toilet paper for military barracks – was not provided.
Is this the same thing as sequestration? And what is the ‘debt ceiling’?
This is not the same thing as sequestration. Sequestration is the act of not funding items that have been in previous federal budgets. Congress passed the sequester in August 2011 and in March of this year allowed the sequester to take place. Unlike the sequester, this shut down is not an intentional act of Congress but rather the result of Congress not passing a federal budget.
But, on top of the sequester and the looming shut down, in mid- to late-October, the national debt ceiling is set to be reached. According to the Treasury Department, the debt ceiling is “the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments … Failing to increase the debt limit would have catastrophic economic consequences. It would cause the government to default on its legal obligations – an unprecedented event in American history.”
Will my spouse still get paid if a budget is not passed?
No, and that’s the most important thing you need to know. The (only) good news is that the October 1 pay check has already been funded, so your spouse will get paid on the first of the month. The mid-month (October 15) check, however, will not be funded. Congress has said that service member pay is retroactive, though. So once a budget is passed, your spouse WILL receive the back pay he or she is due.
But if he/she isn’t being paid, does he/she still have to go to work?
Yes. And that’s what makes military life different from most every other line of work. If your spouse does not show up for work, he or she will be considered AWOL and could be put in jail. Likewise, troops who are deployed will not be brought home early. The war and all other military operations will continue, regardless of whether or not troops are paid.
Will my deployed spouse continue to get pay for hazardous duty, family separation, etc.?
No. Until a budget is passed, there will be no pay of any kind for anyone in the military, deployed or not.
Did it have to be this way?
No. Aside from the fact that Congress could have worked harder to find a compromise sooner, in January, Senators Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced legislation that would have protected pay for the troops during a shut down, but that legislation didn’t get anywhere.
Will my kids be able to go to daycare at the CDC? Will the chow halls still be open? What about the hospitals and clinics, will they be open?
Yes, yes and yes – well, probably. Though no one has specifically said which employees will have to work if the government shuts down next week, in 2011, the Pentagon ordered emergency medical and dental services to continue, as well as dining and child care, some legal activities and contracting and logistics operations and some education and training activities.
But … changes of station (PCS moves) would be delayed, medical offerings would be scaled back, facility and weapons maintenance would be suspended and most civilian employees would be furloughed until appropriations are available. So, daily life in and around military installations will be dramatically affected.
Will federal workers and contractors be paid?
According to the federal Office of Management and Budget, “essential” employees who stay on the job would not get a paycheck at first. But they would be entitled to retroactive pay once the government is running again. What will happen to nonessential employees is not so clear, though. They would have to come to the office on the first day of a shutdown for up to half a day to secure files, fill out time and attendance forms and “otherwise make preparations to preserve their work.” Whether they would eventually receive back pay is up to Congress and the White House. In past shutdowns, those employees were paid retroactively, but there is no guarantee. Federal employees would not, however, be allowed to substitute paid leave such as vacation time, or to even work voluntarily without pay. That’s against the law.
And military retirees, will they get retirement pay?
Retired members of the military have a lot less to worry about as their benefits are not funded through the annual appropriations process, but instead paid for by multi-year bills. Those checks will keep coming because Congress has already committed the money.
But we have a mortgage/rent/car payment/utility bills. How are we supposed to pay our bills if my spouse doesn’t get paid?
Sadly, Congress doesn’t seem to care. You are on your own. If you have some savings set aside, this would be a great time to use them. If you have relatives or friends who might loan you some money, this is a great time to ask for a favor. The pay will come, eventually, and you will be able to re-fund your savings or pay back a loan.
Our mortgage/rent/car payment/utility bills are automatically paid each month. What do we do if there’s no money in our account?
You need to call your bank, your creditors, your landlord and your utility companies. Explain the situation and ask them if they will work with you and will agree to accept your payment late. You need to make those calls NOW. Do not wait until the pay doesn’t come on October 15. Do it in advance and be polite. You are asking for a favor and they do not have to help you. Be gracious.
Will we be reimbursed for any overdraft or late fees we incur?
Most likely not.
Will our bank work with us on this?
Maybe. It depends on you and on your bank. According to USAA’s website, that bank is willing to discuss special payment arrangements, refunds on certain credit cards, allowing early withdrawal of some funds without penalties and flexible payments for some insurance plans. But you need to call. During past threats of shut down, Navy Federal Credit Union has agreed to advance pay to members who have direct deposited federal pay checks, but again, you need to call and discuss it with them. Other, non-military-affiliated, banks might also be willing to work with you – but you need to ask in advance.
What else can we do?
Be smart and be frugal. You will be getting that October 1 check, so use it wisely. Prioritize your bills. Contact your mortgage company, landlord, utility companies and other creditors to see who would be willing to let you pay late, then set aside money for food, gas and other things you know your family will need throughout the month. If possible, cancel or put a hold on services you can live without. Cut back on all the extras like eating out and shopping for bargains. Stop spending money. Eat from your pantry and your freezer. (You know how to do this because you do it before every PCS, remember?) If the government shuts down, the commissaries will probably not be open. If you rely on the commissary to meet your grocery budget, shop there before the shutdown.
This seems really unfair, should I call my Congressional representatives to complain?
By all means! But, honestly, your call is probably not going to change their minds at this late hour. Still, if enough Americans express outrage in calls and emails and through social media they just might listen. So share this article and make sure your friends and relatives know that, contrary to what some are saying, a government shutdown will have a disastrous effect on the finances of military families.
I don’t think this is really going to happen, so I’m just going to sit back and wait and see.
We hope you’re right. We really, really do. (We are military spouses, too.) But even if Congress works something out at the last minute this time, we will be facing an even worse situation in a few weeks when our nation reached the debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, paychecks for service members could be halted in mid-December, right before Christmas. So even if turns out that you don’t need a plan now, you might need one then. Better to just go ahead and make one – and start that emergency fund most ricky-tick.