Update 6:40 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30: The House and Senate passed a bill to fund the government for 45 days. The two House members representing El Paso, Democrat Veronica Escobar and Republican Tony Gonzales, voted in favor of the continuing resolution to fund the government, as did Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz voted no.
A government shutdown could cause an economic disruption for El Paso and create other problems for those who want to travel, get a passport or register for Medicaid or Medicare.
About 13,500 El Pasoans are civilian federal employees as of August, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average weekly wage for those employees is $1,570.
Because government workers aren’t paid during shutdowns, the shutdown will result in $21.2 million lost wages weekly for federal employees. Soldiers at Fort Bliss and federal government contractors will miss tens of millions of dollars in weekly pay.
Tom Fullerton, professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that the loss of paychecks to federal workers could lead to fewer household purchases. He said the inability to conduct business with federal offices or to receive business information from federal agencies could create delays for permits and licenses, lower loan volumes and postpone business activity and investments.
Fullerton referred to an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that stated the aggregate dollar losses associated with the last government shutdown in 2018-19 indicate that the national economy loses about $100 million for every day of a work stoppage. For El Paso and Las Cruces, that could mean potential losses of about $260,000 or $68,000 per day, respectively.
“For these two metropolitan economies, those losses may seem manageable, but should they materialize, they will undoubtedly lead to higher numbers of both business and personal bankruptcies than would otherwise be the case,” Fullerton said. “Most Borderplex businesses will not declare bankruptcy, but profit margins will be lower than would be the case if the federal government stayed open.”
On the domestic side, food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women Infants and Children may only be able to continue for a few weeks or a few days, respectively, before they shut down. This is important in El Paso where one in three people are food insecure.
That is what stresses Susan Goodell, chief executive officer of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger. The food bank provides food to more than 170,000 people, which means about 20% of the county’s population. The agency’s resources already are stretched thin because of the ongoing migrant crisis, and now there could be a federal furlough that will impact thousands of El Pasoans.
“We know that those families will be in lines here at the food bank in order to make ends meet,” Goodell said.
She said that the lesson learned from the last government shutdown was that about 40% of federal employees do not have the money to weather significant loss of one paycheck, let alone several. At Fort Bliss alone, there are almost 160,000 active-duty military, family members and a workforce that includes veterans and retirees. Even though many of them will not get paychecks, those essential workers will still be responsible for child care, car payments, fuel for their vehicles, rent, mortgages, utilities and the like.
“It’s just unconscionable that the government would choose to not pay their employees,” Goodell said. “It’s beyond contemplating.”
According to The Hill, there have been 21 federal government shutdowns in the past 50 years. The most recent one lasted 35 days from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019. It was the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Regardless of a work stoppage, veterans will still receive their monthly pensions and retirees will continue to get their Social Security checks, but there may be some delays because of employee furloughs. There also could be lags for passport applications and going through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at airports.
Essential employees such as air traffic controllers and those important to travel safety, members of the military and those involved in border security will continue to work without a paycheck, but they will be reimbursed after the furlough ends.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection representative said that while essential security personnel will be working, civilian support staff will not. They will be ordered to shut off their government computers and cell phones, which means some phone calls and inquiries will not get returned.
Drew Hamilton, a public affairs specialist at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, said that the range could not comment about any plans it may have tied to the possible government shutdown.
Guy A. Volb, spokesman for Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs, said the post and the 1st Armored Division have plans if the government proceeds operations under a continuing resolution, which means pre-existing appropriations are in place, or if there is a shutdown. Volb said that soldiers will continue with daily operations to include training, and that the post’s child care facilities will remain open.
“We will not speculate on what may happen and are instead focused on ensuring continued critical operations across Fort Bliss,” Volb said. “We will maintain transparency and keep our employees informed as we receive guidance from the Department of Army.”
Federal employees whose pay does not depend on annual appropriations will continue to work. Some examples include the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Cemetery Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.
The possible shutdown was the result of some House Republican lawmakers who are unhappy with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which Congress passed in June 2023 with the backing of GOP leaders in the House and the Senate. The law, which President Joe Biden signed, lifted the cap on federal debt and set limits on annual appropriated spending for fiscal years 2024, which starts Sunday, and 2025.
The holdouts want deep cuts in discretionary spending that would affect programs that serve education, medical research and poor families; cuts in funding for Ukraine’s war efforts; and to defund the Justice Department’s investigation of former President Donald Trump.
Because of the hardliners’ stance, some in the nation’s capital predict that the impasse could last several weeks, or longer.
During a Sept. 26 Zoom press conference, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, blamed the impending government shutdown on ultraconservative Republicans who could not decide on how much they wanted to slash from the budget, and with full knowledge of how their actions would affect federal employees, small business and education.
“To me, this is catastrophic, disastrous, irresponsible and chaotic,” said Escobar, whose district covers most of El Paso.
Because of the impending government shutdown, Escobar added a resource guide to her office website to provide information and answers to frequently asked questions. It also includes information about temporary employment and mental health services.