published Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Impact from federal government shutdown ripples through Chattanooga region

  • photo
    National Park Ranger Robert Turan closes a road leading to Wilder Monument at the Chickamauga Battlefield which is among more than 400 parks across the country that have been closed as a result of the federal government's partial shutdown Tuesday.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

Poll
Who do you blame for the shutdown, Democrats or Republicans?
TELL US YOUR SHUTDOWN STORY

Have you been affected by the federal government shutdown? Tell us how. Email tomarzu@timesfreepress.com.

THE SHUTDOWN SO FAR

Congress remained at a standstill on Tuesday, unable to break its impasse and put a quick end to a government shutdown that kept 800,000 federal workers home, shuttered monuments and museums, and put on stark display the dysfunctional state of America's political system.

Throughout the day, politicians delivered angry speeches, appeared on television, and engaged in plenty of political theater. But there was very little actual negotiating going on inside a US Capitol that was at times eerily quiet.

As night fell, political leaders were planning to keep the government shut down not only a second day but, with no solution in sight, indefinitely.

Most Republicans continue to insist that any government funding bill include cuts to President Obama's health care law. But Democrats have declared that a nonstarter, saying the law has already been approved by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now being implemented.

In a moment that seemed to encapsulate the absurd situation the country finds itself in, elderly World War II veterans were forced to remove barricades to roll their wheelchairs to a closed World War II Memorial on the National Mall. During a brief standoff, they were reportedly assisted by several congressional members who hours earlier helped trigger the shutdown by failing to pass a budget.

House Speaker John Boehner rallied his side to continue pushing for changes in the health care law, telling them in a closed-door meeting they were doing the right thing. The idea of a straight vote on keeping government funded without tying it to health care wasn't even discussed, attendees said.

''We are a unified team, I can tell you that," Representative Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, said as he emerged from the meeting. "This is a Braveheart moment."

Tours halted and congressional offices stopped much of their normal constituent work. The Defense Department announced that all sports at service academies -- including this weekend's Navy-Air Force football game -- will be suspended.

There were "closed" signs around landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial. Federal twitter accounts stopped sending messages, and government websites were no longer updated.

The latest House Republican plan to fund only certain portions of the government -- national parks, veterans services, and the District of Columbia -- was pilloried before it was even voted on. Obama threatened to veto it and Senate majority leader Harry Reid called it "just another wacky idea from the Tea Party-driven Republicans."

House Republicans, in an attempt to put Democrats on the spot and essentially dare them to vote against measures that included popular programs, called for a vote requiring a two-thirds majority. But the measures all failed on Tuesday night, with Democrats remaining mostly united.

''People shouldn't have to choose between help for our veterans and cancer research," Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said several hours before the House votes. "And we shouldn't have to choose between visiting our national parks or enrolling kids in Head Start."

''We're happy to discuss how to fund the government, but not with a gun to our heads," he added. "Open up all of the government, and then we can have a fruitful discussion."

The government shutdown, which began on Tuesday, is the result of several weeks of failed efforts to strike a deal. The debate culminated on Monday night with several proposals being sent back and forth between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

– Globe via AP

In the course of studying the founding fathers, the three branches of federal government and checks and balances, an eighth-grader wondered aloud how anything ever gets done in Washington.

"How does this ever work?" he asked during a social studies class at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

He answered his own question Tuesday morning, after the school's annual trip to the nation's capital was postponed in the wake of a federal government shutdown that temporarily has closed many Washington, D.C., tourist sites.

Social studies teacher Jane Varnell said the political gridlock has, if nothing else, been an opportunity for students to learn about and discuss the nature of democracy.

"That same student came in today and said, 'Mrs. Varnell, it doesn't work,'" she said Tuesday.

Day one of the federal government shutdown hit the Chattanooga area in many ways: It closed Chickamauga Battlefield on the Civil War's sesquicentennial, sent low-income mothers who rely on federal assistance scrambling to stock up on food for their children, frustrated Chattanoogans seeking to pay their federal taxes, and may affect a journalists' convention that has been a year in the making.

Chickamauga Battlefied closed

What a change two weeks makes.

Cathy Cook, superintendent at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, was kind Tuesday, even though her bosses effectively decided she would go without pay for a while.

The park swarmed with thousands of Civil War buffs in late September, during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga.

Tuesday, Cook had to tell 25 park employees the news: Sorry, but federal park employees are out of work for an unspecified time, and whether they will receive back pay for the time away from the job is uncertain.

"These people are just like other citizens," Cook said. "Some of them live paycheck to paycheck."

Park rangers patrolled the battleground Tuesday afternoon, right at 12 hours after the U.S. House and U.S. Senate failed to approve a new budget for the nation. All side roads leading into park grounds were barricaded.

Visitors were being gently shooed away. Cook said only four policing personnel will be kept on during the shutdown to maintain security. They may or may not be paid until a congressional agreement is made.

In the meantime, all park grounds are closed. No parking. No biking. No running. No walking. Only LaFayette Road will remain open for commuters, and bystanders will be asked to leave.

Park trash will not be removed. Park grass will not be mowed. Park bills will not be paid.

"It's just a fact that we have no money to operate," Cook said.

Cook acknowledged that the park is one of many affected. In the immediate area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country's most-visited national park, is also closed.

Also in the greater Chattanooga area, Point Park on Lookout Mountain and Little River Canyon National Reserve in Fort Payne, Ala., are closed.

All federal forest areas, including the Cherokee National Forest, also are closed.

Mothers rush to buy food

Low-income mothers rushed to buy food for their young children through Tennessee's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the program's director, Peggy T. Lewis, said.

"Some of our grocery stores have had a run on the foods that WIC supplies," Lewis said. "People are panicking because they depend on this program."

WIC, which provides food and counseling to low-income women and their children under age 5, can endure a federal shutdown only until about Oct. 10, according to a review ordered by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

WIC checks are very specific. They state the month in which they can be used and exactly what items can be bought, including milk, cereal, dried beans, peanut butter, cheese, and fresh and frozen fruit. WIC participants could use all their October checks at once, Lewis said -- though they would need to be able to store perishables and freeze milk to make it last.

In Tennessee, some 160,000 women and children use WIC, Lewis said. In August, Hamilton County had 7,353 WIC participants, she said, and there were 9,034 in the surrounding 10 Tennessee counties.

Food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will continue to be distributed despite the shutdown, and school lunches and breakfasts will continue to be served.

IRS office closed, but taxes still due

Rodney Thrasher stopped at the Chattanooga IRS office before noon Tuesday to pick up a copy of his 2010 tax return.

When he arrived, the parking lot was empty and the door was locked. A printed sign taped to the door read, "In the event of a government shutdown, this office will be closed. Please check www.IRS.gov for the latest information. We apologize for any inconvenience."

"They need to get their mess together, stop playing politics and think about the working people," Thrasher, a cook, said.

The IRS will keep limited operations going during the shutdown, according to the IRS website. The bureau can't issue refunds during the shutdown or process paper correspondence. No live telephone operators will be providing customer service.

Yet all tax deadlines remain in effect, including the Oct. 15 deadline for individuals who filed for a six-month extension on this year's taxes. The IRS is encouraging filers to send in electronic tax returns, because most electronic returns are automatically processed.

In the historic Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Chattanooga, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's district office was closed and a note on the door said it would remain so for the duration of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, U.S. District 3 Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's Chattanooga district office is still open.

"That is the plan, to stay open and do our best to serve our constituents through the shutdown," Fleischmann's spokesman, Tyler Threadgill, said.

Neither Alexander nor Fleischmann approve of the shutdown, their spokesmen said.

"[Alexander] certainly doesn't think shutting down the government is the right way to go about things," the senator's communications director, Jim Jeffries, said.

'Staying the course'

The Society of Environmental Journalists' 23rd annual convention, which starts today in Chattanooga, may be affected. But coordinators are "staying the course," according to Jay Letto, the conference director.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the conference.

The event has been in the works for more than a year and the schedule includes tours of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Sequoyah Nuclear Facility in Soddy-Daisy and TVA's Kingston coal plant -- and at least one speaker from President Barack Obama's cabinet.

"Basically all federal people are currently not coming, but all of them are on standby. The secretary of the interior is sending a video in the event she can't come," Letto said.

Context matters

CSLA's trip to Washington would have been light on activities had teachers gone ahead amid the shutdown. When Varnell, the social studies teacher, went over the itinerary for the three-day trip, she realized few of their destinations would be open. The National Archives. The Capitol building. The National Holocaust Museum. The Lincoln Memorial. All were closed.

Varnell is working with the tour company to reschedule for November, at which time she hopes the standstill will have ended. In the meantime, teachers at CSLA are regrouping to adjust their schedules and curriculum.

While the more than 40 students and families are disappointed about the postponed trip, and some students have written letters to members of Congress, Varnell said she tried to relay the context of the situation.

"We are a small group of people impacted," she said. "And there are 800,000 people impacted without a job today."

Staff writers Shelly Bradbury, Louie Brogdon, Dave Flessner, Alex Green and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

Other National Articles

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement

Find a Business

400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.