Tuesday’s government shutdown forced the closure of lakefront parks in the Waco area, while agencies like the Waco Veterans Affairs Regional Office braced for more significant disruptions if Congress does not reach a quick compromise on a federal funding bill.
All nine parks at Lake Waco and the 13 parks at Lake Whitney were closed indefinitely beginning Tuesday as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to feel the onset of the shutdown. The closures mean residents will not have access to the lakes or a hike-and-bike trail that extends along the Lake Waco dam, nor can residents make new camping reservations.
The Corps of Engineers also is ordering furloughs for employees, and the agency will only continue with life safety activities like dam maintenance projects, said Randy Cephus, spokesman for the Fort Worth District. The agency will issue refunds for any campers who were forced to cut their visits short, or who already made reservations.
Local veterans still will continue to receive health care and disability benefits as both the Waco Veterans Affairs hospital and the VA Regional Office were spared furloughs under the shutdown. The Veterans Health Administration already was appropriated its 2014 fiscal year funding a year in advance, so VA hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities are not affected, spokeswoman Deborah Meyer said.
But the VA’s regional offices only have funding through late October to continue with claims processing, spokesman Tom Morley said in an emailed statement. Once those funds run out, claims rating activities and payments to veterans will be suspended.
The regional office already has suspended overtime pay to claims processors, which was mandated this spring to speed up processing on cases backlogged for a year or longer.
Republicans in Congress late Tuesday announced plans to pass new legislation that would continue funding for the entire Department of Veterans Affairs to avoid any disruptions in claims, disbursements and services to veterans.
Legislators also sought to pass measures that would fund city operations for Washington, D.C., and to fund the National Parks Service, in response to a dust-up when groups of traveling World War II veterans were temporarily barred from entering the national World War II memorial because it is closed due to the shutdown.
But Democratic leaders raised objections to a piecemeal funding approach, instead pushing for a complete bill to fund the entire government.
The impasse that forced the shutdown centered on a series of funding bills passed by the Republican-controlled House that also included various measures to delay or modify implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which operates through a separate funding mechanism and began its rollout Tuesday, unaffected by the shutdown.
The Senate, which has a Democratic majority, rejected all four proposed bills, the last of which also would have delayed the mandatory health insurance enrollment requirement for individuals for a year and required all elected officials — including the president, vice president and members of Congress — to use health insurance exchanges.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, previously said at a September town hall meeting in Waco that he did not agree with using the funding bill to force changes to the reform law. But he voted in favor of the funding bills anyway, because the majority of his fellow party members thought it was the best approach to changing the health care initiative.
“We as a conference decided to move forward in that way, though my preference would have been to use the debt ceiling (debate),” Flores said. “But I am one of 233 (House) Republicans, and I think we work better as a team than all of us out there trying to design our own play-calling.”
The national debt ceiling must be raised by Oct. 17 to allow the U.S. to continue borrowing funds to pay for initiatives Congress already has funded or to risk going into default on current debts.
Flores said Republicans in Congress already are planning to fight for provisions like delaying the roll out of the Affordable Care Act for a year, approving construction for the Keystone XL pipeline, revising various business regulations, and tax reforms.
“If we go another few days, you’re going to have to meld everything together, to deal with the funding of the government as part of the debt ceiling as well,” Flores said.
Flores acknowledged that doing so could create an unstable economic situation for the country, but that Republicans think the fight is necessary because “we can’t get anybody to talk to us.”
Flores said House Republicans were pushing for a conference with Senate Democrats to try and hash out a resolution. He said the party already has named eight negotiators, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, but that no Democratic leaders have come to the table.
“The debt ceiling becomes a pretty good tool to use for government reform when you do have a House and Senate or a Congress and a White House that are divided ideologically,” Flores said, adding that it has been used in that manner 13 times under the last four presidents.
Until some sort of compromise is reached, several federal agencies in Waco will have to scale back or shut down some services.
The Social Security Administration field office in Waco still is operating under normal business hours, but with reduced services. A staff member confirmed that it will not be able to issue new or replacement social security cards, the most common service sought by residents.
Residents still will receive benefits checks, and are able to visit the field offices to seek assistance in applying for benefits, seeking an appeal, or changing their addresses or direct deposit information.
The Waco offices of the Farm Services Administration, which coordinates crop insurance and other federal agriculture programs, closed Tuesday. The agency is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose website was out of service Tuesday because of the shutdown.
McLennan County Agrilife extension agent Shane McLellan said he didn’t expect an immediate impact on farmers, but if the FSA office remains shut down for several weeks it could affect federal payments to farmers.
The shutdown also is affecting the Federal Housing Administration, which insures loans for low-to-moderate-income homebuyers. Federal housing officials said this week that the FHA would continue to approve loans, reversing an earlier statement, but the agency’s staff will be cut by 97 percent.
Mike Stone, executive director of the nonprofit Waco Community Development, said the vast majority of homebuyers his agency works with rely on FHA loans. But he said he doesn’t expect an immediate impact on those clients.
Flores expected that until a funding bill was agreed upon, Congress would draft and approve specific bills to fund certain critical programs or services.
For example, he hopes to see a measure to keep paying security forces like the Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard, who must continue working because they are deemed essential but are not currently drawing a paycheck during the shutdown.
Flores also wanted a measure to ensure that funding for research initiatives is not interrupted while a final funding bill is hashed out, noting that his district includes three research universities — Baylor University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin.
Truell Hyde, Baylor’s vice provost for research, said the university has more than 250 federal grants to fund research projects. The funds are distributed on a reimbursement basis, so unless the shutdown extends for longer than a month or whenever Baylor would normally request grant money to cover incurred costs, it likely won’t delay any ongoing research, Hyde said.
The Texas State Technical College System has about 12 positions that are funded through federal grants.
Eliska Smith, TSTC’s associate vice chancellor for strategic communications, said it was unclear whether those positions might be suspended under the shutdown, but that the college plans to pay those salaries using other funding sources through December if the need arises.
Staff writer J.B. Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report.