Washington lawmakers don't want shutdown sequels

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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As federal employees returned to work on Thursday and many national parks reopened, a common theme emerged among elected officials and those impacted by the 16-day government shutdown: We can't keep doing this.

Congresswomen representing Southwest Washington agreed it's not in the nation's best interest to hop from one government-caused economic crisis to the next.

"Southwest Washington residents deserve to know that the financial markets won't get flipped upside down by a default that could devastate the fragile job market in our region," U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said in a statement Wednesday evening. "The people we represent elected us to work together and solve problems, not to wage a never-ending partisan fight."

In the past couple of years, Congress came close to defaulting on the national debt twice, dragged its feet on renewing tax breaks for most Americans, and after additional budget talks failed, let automatic, across-the-board spending cuts kick in.

Although the deal Congress approved Wednesday evening did raise the nation's borrowing limit and reopened the government, it does so only temporarily. That means Congress has about three months to come up with its next budget deal or face a similar crisis all over again.

At the forefront of renewed budget talks is U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and chair of the Senate Budget Committee. On Wednesday, Murray called the partial federal shutdown an "embarrassing episode" and vowed to do all she could to find common ground with Republicans in the coming months.

"I hope that if any lesson comes of these last few weeks, it's that the American people will not tolerate being held hostage and that the constant cycle of governing by crisis must come to an end," Murray said in a statement.

Murray, Herrera Beutler and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., all voted in favor of the budget deal that ended the government shutdown on Wednesday.

On Sept. 30, Herrera Beutler voted for a House GOP plan to keep the government running, but that plan also made changes to the 2010 health care reforms, a move Senate Democrats vowed to block. A partial government shutdown began the following day. On Tuesday, Herrera Beutler changed her tune, saying it was unrealistic for Republicans to think their budget negotiation strategy would successfully change or defund the Affordable Care Act.

Americans for Limited Government, a Tea Party group, chastised Herrera Beutler for her Wednesday vote.

"By voting to fund (the Affordable Care Act), Herrera Beutler now owns Obamacare just as much as if it had been a vote to adopt it in the first place," the group said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee thanked Congress for protecting the "state's implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health coverage to nearly 25,000 Washingtonians in just the first two weeks," he said. Inslee added that Congress will reimburse Washington state for covering the cost of some federal services, including unemployment benefits, during the shutdown.

Back to work

In Southwest Washington on Thursday, national parks and refuges, including Fort Vancouver, the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, were busy reopening their doors to the public.

"We are really excited to be back at work and welcoming visitors," said Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. "As (National Park Service) Director Jon Jarvis stated yesterday, 'turning away visitors is not in our culture or in our DNA.'"

Fortmann said the organization is rescheduling many of its events that were postponed during the shutdown, including one of the park's Lantern Tours, which was rescheduled for Oct. 26.

The Mount St. Helens webcam is up and running again, and visitor facilities at the national volcanic monument will reopen Friday. That includes the Johnston Ridge Observatory (doors open at 10 a.m.), Coldwater Lake, Ape Caves, Lava Canyon, Windy Ridge and the Trail of Two Forests.

Scott Bailey, a regional economist for Southwest Washington, also was back at work Thursday after being sent home for the previous seven workdays. He is a state employee who's position is funded through federal dollars.

Although the crisis has ended for now, Bailey said the shutdown and the dysfunction in Congress have a negative impact on the economy. The good news, Bailey said, is that the roughly 800,000 federal employees who were furloughed during the shutdown will receive back pay, making the shutdown "more of a hiccup rather than anything permanent."

But the repeated government crises "introduces a lot of uncertainty into the bond market," Bailey said, and it could cause federal workers to spend less in their local economies, especially because "we could be going through this again three months from now." Clark County has an estimated 3,300 federal workers.

"Some of us who are prudent might try to spend less and stick a little money away," Bailey said. "It's sort of like what happens to anybody with a threat of a layoff coming up."

Standard & Poor's estimated the shutdown has taken $24 billion out of the U.S. economy, and the Fitch credit rating agency warned Tuesday that it was reviewing its AAA rating on U.S. government debt for a possible downgrade.

Bailey said it would be wise for budget negotiators in Congress to pay attention to economic inequality that exists among Americans.

"We've seen a shift in income from the bottom 99 percent to the top 1 percent over the last 40 years," Bailey said, and that's harmful to the country's economic future. "Budget cutting in times of need like we're in has shown to be a failed program. It does not help the economy. It hurts the economy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.