Government Shutdown FY2014: Day One

Government Shutdown FY2014: Day One

Today, NASA celebrated its 55th birthday.   But it also was the first day of the government shutdown for FY2014 and more than 90 percent of NASA’s workers were furloughed.  House Republicans continue to insist on tying government funding to a delay or defunding of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); Senate Democrats continue to insist on a “clean” bill that simply keeps the government operating.

No progress on resolving the fiscal crisis was made today.   The Senate rejected the House Republicans’ latest bill that called for a formal conference committee to meet to discuss the differences between the two chambers.  Senate Democrats replied that they have been requesting a conference committee for months and the House Republicans would not agree and they are not willing to enter into a conference now with a gun to their heads.

The government partially shut down at midnight — only “essential” activities such as the military, air traffic controllers, border control agents, and operating spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS) may continue, along with activities that are funded through non-appropriated funds, like many of those at the Patent and Trademark Office, which collects fees for its services.  

Today, House Republicans introduced three separate bills that would have funded specific, popular activities: the Smithsonian and other government museums as well as national parks, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the District of Columbia.   Senate Democrats and the White House rejected this approach immediately, as did the House itself when it came time to vote.  The bills were brought to a vote under a procedure called suspension of the rules, which bypasses certain procedural steps but requires a two-thirds majority to pass.   Each of the three bills failed to get a two-thirds vote.

Meanwhile, many government activities have ceased, including preparations for the launch of the next mission to Mars, MAVEN.  It is due to launch on November 18, with a 20 day launch window.  If it is not ready, it will have to wait 26 months for the next launch opportunity.   According to a tweet from @MAVEN2Mars this morning, contractor work can continue as long as money is available and the work is not at a government facility, but launch preparations were underway at Kennedy Space Center, which is a government facility and those had to stop.  The impact on the mission will remain unclear until the duration of the shutdown is known.

Spacecraft already launched, like the ISS and the Mars Curiosity rover, may continue to be operated.  Curiosity was built and is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  While often considered a NASA center, JPL actually is operated under contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology, so its employees are not immediately affected.  The Applied Physics Lab (APL) at Johns Hopkins University is in a similar situation and continues to operate spacecraft including MESSENGER and New Horizons. 

At NASA, however, the situation is grim.  Slate puts the furlough rate at 97 percent for the agency, the highest of the agencies on which it reported.  The Washington Post was more specific, stating that only 549 of NASA’s 18,250 employees were exempted.    In total, an estimated 800,000 of 2 million civilian government employees have been furloughed.   





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