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News / Northwest

Military pay, typically exempted during shutdowns, is at risk

By Peter Cohn, CQ-Roll Call
Published: September 26, 2023, 8:37am

WASHINGTON — Why is this shutdown, if one occurs, not like the others in recent history? U.S. military service members, who have to report for duty anyway because of the critical nature of their jobs, wouldn’t get paid.

During the prolonged partial government shutdowns in late 1995-early 1996, 2013 and late 2018-early 2019 — the longest in modern history at 21, 16 and 34 days, respectively — active-duty military and reservists received their salaries during the funding lapses.

That’s because the full-year Defense appropriations bill had already become law or, in the case of the October 2013 shutdown, Congress preemptively passed legislation guaranteeing military pay. With no enacted Defense bill even close, the only chance for military service members to still get their paychecks if there’s a shutdown is for lawmakers to go the 2013 route.

Technically, there’s still time. Former Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., introduced the bill on Sept. 28, 2013; it passed the House at 12:24 a.m. on the 29th. The following day, the last full day of government funding, the Senate took just a few minutes to clear the measure by unanimous consent. President Barack Obama signed it that night, just before the shutdown was set to begin.

Despite that unanimous 2013 House vote, there were plenty of Democrats who took to the floor to blast the GOP for allowing the shutdown to happen and leaving every other agency’s employees in the lurch.

“We are all going to vote for this bill,” then-House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said during brief debate. “But I will tell my friends on both sides of the aisle, it is time for us to give respect to our non-uniformed federal personnel because they are critical to the success of this country, to the success of our people.”

Coffman, who served two decades in the military before coming to Congress, was perennially endangered given his purplish district in the Denver suburbs. He lost to Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., another ex-military man, in 2018, and is now mayor of Aurora, Colorado.

This year, another vulnerable GOP incumbent is leading the charge to ensure the troops get paid on time.

Ex-Navy helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans, R-Va., who last year flipped the seat of another Navy veteran, former Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, is the lead sponsor of a bill introduced last week that mirrors the 2013 version. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks Kiggans’ seat as “Tilt Republican,” a category that’s a tad safer than “Toss-up” but still among the party’s most endangered.

Her bill isn’t on this week’s floor calendar, at least for the moment. The House is already set to take up four full-year spending bills, including the Defense bill and the Homeland Security bill that funds the U.S. Coast Guard. But with backing for the rule to take up those measures always questionable — and zero chance those spending bills become law in time to avert a shutdown —there’s still a chance some floor time could emerge for bills like Kiggans’.

Big numbers

There are currently almost 2.1 million active-duty military service members and reservists who would be forced to report for duty without pay.

Of the roughly 804,000 civilian Pentagon employees, about 199,000 would be required to work without pay given their “excepted” roles considered “necessary to protect life and property,” while 439,000 would stay home without pay, according to the department’s contingency plan. The remainder are compensated outside of annual appropriations and wouldn’t be affected.

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Kiggans’ bill, as Coffman’s did a decade earlier, would guarantee pay for active-duty military, reservists and civilian employees — including at the Coast Guard — “whom the Secretary concerned determines are providing support to members of the Armed Forces” performing active service.

That’s a hazy definition that the agencies in question went through contortions to determine which civilians were eligible to get paid on time.

“Under our current reading of the law, the standard of ‘support to members of the Armed Forces’ requires a focus on those employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations,” then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a 2013 memo on the law’s implementation. Acting DHS Secretary Rand Beers used similar verbiage in his own 2013 memo.

Kiggans’ bill carries the same “providing support to members of the Armed Forces” language as the 2013 Coffman bill.

She currently has seven co-sponsors on the measure, including one Democrat, former Marine and onetime presidential candidate Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Others on Kiggins’ bill include several on the GOP’s endangered list — New York’s Brandon Williams, whose race is an Inside Elections “Toss-up”; Arizona’s Juan Ciscomani and Iowa’s Zach Nunn, both in the “Tilt Republican” category with Kiggans; and New York’s Nick LaLota, in slightly safer territory at “Lean Republican.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is the lead sponsor of his chamber’s version of Kiggans’ bill and has 13 co-sponsors, all Republicans.

The Coast Guard’s roughly 50,000 employees, including nearly 42,000 active-duty military, fell completely through the cracks during the 2018-19 shutdown because the Homeland Security spending bill didn’t become law in advance as the Defense bill did. So they didn’t get paid until the shutdown ended.

Sullivan and other Senate Commerce leaders have a bill that would guarantee pay during the shutdown for active-duty as well as civilian Coast Guard employees, which mirrors a House bill from Michigan Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten — who is on her party’s vulnerable list with a Lean Democratic race rating — with 50 co-sponsors.

Despite backing from Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; the chair of the Commerce subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Sullivan and Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, couldn’t get past Democratic objections when they sought unanimous consent to pass the bill last week.

“This is a bipartisan bill. It makes sense, and the Coast Guard and their family members are watching. Does the U.S. Senate have their back or not?” Sullivan asked before he and Cruz made the request.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., blocked the unanimous consent on grounds that the focus should be on avoiding a shutdown that will affect all federal employees and services.

“I appreciate that my colleagues want to talk about how Coast Guard pay is handled compared to other branches of our armed services,” Murray said. “But, respectfully, the pressing issue right now is making sure everyone gets paid, and we prevent a completely unnecessary shutdown that would hurt our families across the country.”

Widespread pain

To Murray’s point, the pain could be widespread depending on how long a shutdown lasts.

Including the Defense Department, there are over 3 million federal employees across the U.S. whose paychecks — which would ordinarily be deposited Oct. 13 — are at risk because they’d either be furloughed or forced to work without pay. The next federal pay date after that is Oct. 27.

Estimates vary by agency, but roughly 750,000 executive branch employees would continue to get paid out of other funds, including fees, mandatory spending and appropriations enacted in advance, according to contingency plans authored by individual agencies.

About 90% of over 414,000 Department of Veterans Affairs staffers would stay at work and be compensated, for example. On the other hand, just 15 out of NASA’s 18,300 workers would get paid during a shutdown.

One protected class of government employees: members of Congress, who continue to receive their paychecks in a shutdown due to a permanent appropriation, plus constitutional protections. But an estimated 35,000 legislative branch staffers do not.

When the shutdown ends, all federal workers who went without their paychecks would receive retroactive compensation, thanks to a law signed shortly after the 2018-19 shutdown.

But employees working on contract providing services for the federal government aren’t covered by that law. After the last shutdown, estimates were upward of 1 million contractors, many of them lower-paid employees, never got paid for over one month of lost work.