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White House promises this shutdown ‘will look very different.’ Will it?

Evan Halper
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The government shutdown is fast becoming an unwelcome and costly staple of American democracy. After the last prolonged closure delivered a substantial hit to the economy and created hardship and frustration for millions, lawmakers vowed never again.

And yet, here we are again.

The Trump administration is scrambling to soften the blow with plans to keep as much of the government open as possible. Their blueprints, though, could quickly unravel.

“We are going to manage this shutdown differently,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, who accused the previous administration of using the 2013 budget stalemate to score political points, making the repercussions more painful for Americans than necessary.

“We are not going to weaponize it. We are not going to try to hurt people,” he told reporters at the White House.

Whatever the White House’s intentions, however, some hurt from a shutdown is unavoidable. The law places the federal government under extremely restrictive constraints. In most cases, agencies have no choice but to send the vast majority of their workforce home. Only those performing critical public health and safety functions remain, and even they typically do not get paid until it is all over.

FILE - In this March 27, 1996, file photo, a mule train winds its way down the Bright Angel trail at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. Arizona officials on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, guaranteed that the Grand Canyon National Park will remain in full operation if Congress fails to pass a budget and a government shutdown ensues. Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said the state's top tourist attraction "will not close on our watch, period." (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins, File)

Parks: Mulvaney’s vow that there will be no mass closure of national parks, for example, just some minor public inconvenience along the lines of “things like trash won’t get picked up,” could quickly get undercut by the realities of how the parks operate.

Some 85 percent of the employees who keep the parks running would be prohibited from working, according to the administration’s own planning documents. Visitors’ centers and bathrooms would be shuttered. Maintenance crews will be sent home. Roads won’t be plowed, and campsites won’t get cleaned.

“Trying to run national parks without park rangers not only creates unnecessary dangers for visiting families, but puts the parks’ natural, cultural, and historic resources at risk,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

A file image from the government shutdown in 2013. If the government shuts down in the coming days, the Trump administration plans to keep many national parks and monuments open. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

By Monday: By Monday, the fallout on the public will intensify. All the museums run by the Smithsonian will have closed, its 715,000 daily visitors turned away. Roughly 850,000 federal workers, including members of the military, will stop collecting paychecks. Agencies will stop delivering public health programs, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where critical work on flu prevention could come to a halt amid one of the worst flu epidemics in recent years.

Approvals that any number of businesses need to move forward with their plans – from oil companies seeking drilling permits to airlines seeking to register new planes — could be frozen. Banks could be forced to delay tens of thousands of loans, as the IRS becomes unable to provide applicant income verification.

“Shutting down the government is a very serious thing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told CNN on Thursday night. “People die, accidents happen. You don’t know. Necessary functions can cease. … There is no specific list you can look at and make a judgment: ‘Well, everything is going to be just fine.’ You can’t make that judgment.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discusses the possible government shutdown in the press briefing room of the White House Jan. 19, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Damage: Following the shutdown of 2013, a sobering federal report assessed the damage it inflicted on the nation. The report by the Office of Management and Budget concluded the economy took a hit in the range of $2 billion to $6 billion and 120,000 private sector jobs didn’t get created during those 16 days as a result of the Washington gridlock.

Even though Congress awarded retroactive paychecks to almost every affected federal employee, as has been routine following shutdowns, the impacts rippled across the nation. More than 2 million liters of American beer, wine and liquor sat in ports because the Treasury Department could not issue export certificates. Applications to develop 80,000 units of multifamily housing were frozen. The start of Alaskan crab fishing season was delayed several days, significantly costing fishermen, many of who operate on the margins.

During that shutdown, more than a dozen national parks ultimately did reopen within a week, as states stepped up to pay the costs of running them. State officials reasoned that shouldering the expense was less costly than the economic blow of losing visitors who spent, on total, an average $33 million a day in the communities around the national parks. Even so, local economies still suffered a $500 million hit.

As Mulvaney assures that this shutdown would “look different,” the contingency plans the White House already has published suggest there is only so much he can do. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, all but 781 of nearly 15,000 employees would be sent home. Work at most Superfund sites would stop.

It is much the same at other agencies, where the plans suggest a lot of anxiety, inconvenience and frustration is on the way if Congress does not resolve things quickly.