Shutdown creates vacuum in areas far beyond the Beltway; Closed government takes its toll on business

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 2:47 PM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: December 29, 1995, Friday, Final Edition

The shutdown is about to put Jim Thomas out of business.

Thomas holds the federal contract to operate the horse-drawn sleigh ride at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, Wyo. Instead of hauling 1,000 visitors a day across the snow to see the wintering herds, he is home calling lenders to tell them he cannot pay his debts.

The government's decision to close national refuges and parks has cost him about $ 60,000, forced him to lay off 12 employees and park his seven sleighs. "If they don't get the refuge open by the first of the year, I don't know what I can do," Thomas said yesterday.

The shutdown, shrugged off at the start by many Americans as Washington political theater, now seems more serious.

It is reaching far beyond the 760,000 federal workers who likely will get half-full paychecks next week. And beyond the tourists who have been grumbling about locked museum doors on the Mall.

On Tuesday, the "Superfund" toxic waste cleanup program will run out of money used to keep 2,500 federal employees working. Within five days of shutting down Superfund oversight, up to 10,000 contract employees across the nation could be thrown out of work, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Grants for medical research are backed up at the National Institutes of Health. About 2,000 researchers, many expecting grant money next week, will not receive their funding on time. Among those waiting are 130 cancer researchers who were approved for funding this month but did not get their money because NIH had to close, officials said.

In Mariposa County, Calif., near Yosemite National Park, the county board of supervisors has asked the governor to declare the county an economic disaster area. With the park closed and tourists departing, the county is losing from $8,000 to $ 10,000 a day in tax revenue, the Interior Department said.

New Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico have stopped their state Occupational Safety and Health Administration programs because of a lack of federal funds, and state programs in South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah will close by Jan. 1. The Labor Department said 17 states will suspend federally funded programs that help small businesses in high-hazard industries by New Year's Day.

"There is a growing sense of unease and uncertainty among lots of people who are beginning to realize this is serious and real and not funny anymore," University of Wisconsin public policy professor Donald F. Kettl said.

Kettl said the turning point came just before Christmas Eve, when "there were a lot of veterans who had a moment of panic, wondering if they were going to get a pension check. . . . That was real and palpable and that anxiety has begun to insinuate itself into the outside-the-Beltway world."

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich said yesterday that leading economic statistics collected in December on unemployment, producer prices and consumer prices will not be released on time in January. He said if the shutdown extends to Jan. 2, "it will be impossible" to collect the January data on schedule.

"This will be very disruptive for American businesses that rely on these data as well as for the financial markets," Reich said. "We're talking about the entire economy."

Private-sector companies are starting to feel the shutdown's pinch. Contractors who work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Medicare program have been told payments will be delayed. In BIA's case, businesses are losing about $ 23 million in revenue a week. TW Recreational Services, which holds the concessionaire contract at Yellowstone National Park, said it lost about $400,000 last week because of the shutdown.

"If this goes much beyond next week, the damage is going to be harmful and cause some small-niche companies to go out of business, and do substantial damage to the financial position of many companies," said Bert M. Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council, a Northern Virginia trade group that represents federal contractors.

Government contractors provide a diverse range of services for agencies -- from computer and software design to cutting-edge medical and technological research to building security.

NIH, like many of the 47 federal agencies caught in the shutdown, placed its employees who process grants on furlough. December and January are two of the big months at NIH for moving money to 1,700 research centers, hospitals and universities across the nation.

But no mail is being delivered within NIH's Bethesda campus and most employee voice-mail boxes are full. "The universities are going to open up next week and say, 'What's happened? Where's my notices of grant awards?' " said Wendy Baldwin, who oversees NIH's grants. "Then they're going to call, but can't get through. They they're going to write, but there's no mail, no paper in our fax machine."

When the shutdown ends, Baldwin said, "It is going to take months. We're creating this huge backlog in the system that won't resolve itself in 24 hours." The public, she added, "has not appreciated what cascading effects this is going to have."

Out in Wyoming, Jim Thomas, surrounded by federal land and federal rules, is angry. He got his government contract last year to provide the sleigh rides, bought equipment, set up shuttle buses and then lost out during the busiest tourist time of the winter. "All I do is go deeper in debt," he said.

When he called the White House, "they were downright rude. They don't care what they are doing to people. They think they're affecting only federal employees, but that's bull crap."

Thomas, 42, is married and has three children. He also blames Congress for his financial troubles. "These freshmen congressmen -- they are really irritating me. They could open this government up but they want to make a name for themselves at my expense."

As the shutdown lengthened and his anger deepened, his wife spent two hours one night trying to calm him, he said. "She was not going to let the government ruin my Christmas."

Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.

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