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‘We’re left in the dark’: As many industries get shutdown relief, those without political clout feel left behind

With nine federal departments and several federal agencies going unfunded, here's who and what are impacted by the partial government shutdown. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Alaska’s cod and pollock fishing fleet headed out on the Bering Sea this month without delay, thanks to federal inspectors brought back from furlough to certify their boats. And alcohol producers have two calls scheduled next week with Treasury Department officials to discuss how to keep new products moving onto liquor store shelves.

But advocates for survivors of domestic violence have not been able to find an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help them access their grant money for temporary housing. And some Native American leaders said they are operating with no guidance about what to do about the abrupt cutoff of federal funds.

In the chaotic landscape of the partial federal shutdown, some constituencies have gotten speedy relief and attention from federal officials — while others are still trying to get in the door.

The lack of guidance from the White House on what services can be considered essential — as well as the ability of agencies to restart some programs with discretionary funds — has created an opening for politically connected interests to prod parts of the government back into action.

The haphazard aspect of what services are getting restored has fueled a sense that the shutdown, in many cases, has been more painful for those without political power, critics said.

“There is supposed to be a principle that agencies are shut, with the exception of essential personnel there for public safety,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic policy expert and president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank. “When that bright line disappears, you get inequities across agencies, and that feels like where we are.”

Transportation Security Administration workers, who continue to work despite not getting paid, rallied against the government shutdown Jan. 18. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Nick Childers/The Washington Post)

He added: “The fact that it’s not being done in a seemingly evenhanded fashion across agencies raises the question if it’s the squeaky wheel getting the grease.”

‘Could you make these guys essential?’: Mortgage industry gets shutdown relief after appeal to senior Treasury officials

Influential industries are not the only ones getting relief during the budget impasse.

The Trump administration has scrambled to blunt its broadest and most severe impacts on Americans — including those with limited income — by extending food stamp payments and bringing back tens of thousands of Internal Revenue Service employees to ensure that Americans receive their tax refunds on time.

Brad Bishop, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an email that the president is working to keep as much of the government open as possible

“In stark contrast to previous administrations, President Trump has directed all impacted agencies to make the partial lapse in appropriations as painless as possible for the American people, consistent with law,” Bishop said.

But as agencies work to allocate scarce resources, some constituencies with little political clout say they are having trouble being heard.

Some nonprofit groups and shelters that receive funding through HUD to subsidize transitional housing costs for domestic violence victims cannot access the grant money because they are locked out of HUD’s computer system — and the staffers who would help are furloughed.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence appealed to congressional aides for help this week and said it reached out to Jemine Bryon, the HUD assistant secretary who oversees the homelessness grants.

But Bryon has not responded, said Monica McLaughlin, the network’s director of public policy. The nonprofit groups are relying now on donors and landlords to float the money needed for rent.

“We’re using all of our advocacy relationships to try and get this untangled, but there is no one there at HUD,” said Cindy Southworth, the network’s executive vice president. “That speaks, to me, to the priorities of the administration.”

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said a password problem has locked out multiple groups, including those who provide services to the homeless, who are now unable to access their grant money.

“We’re working on a resolution,” Brown said. “This is normally handled in the field offices, but there is no one in the field to assist.” The response may not be immediate, he added: “We have a limited staff here.”

The powerful alcohol industry, by contrast, has the attention of senior Treasury officials as it presses its concerns about the impact of the shutdown.

Wine, beer and distilled spirits makers — which accounted for $10.6 billion in tax revenue in fiscal 2018 — are asking for more staff to return to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which must approve new equipment, formulas and labels.

“The backup is extraordinary,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council.

Industry officials were told that staff could not be brought back in, according to a person close to the tax bureau, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

However, talks are ongoing. Treasury officials urged alcohol producers to collect data on the economic effects of the shutdown on the industry, including the loss of tax revenue to the U.S. Treasury, according to a person familiar with the department’s response. Second and third calls have been scheduled with agency officials for Monday and Tuesday.

A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined to comment

Some industries saw the potential fallout of a shutdown coming — and worked to mitigate it.

During last year’s three-day government shutdown, the National Pork Producers Council and other livestock groups successfully pressed the Agriculture Department to continue publishing livestock pricing data — the major source of market information for the meat industry — reversing the position of the Obama administration. That policy has continued in the current shutdown.

The pork council continues to have an open line to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his staff, said council spokesman Jim Monroe. The USDA has for the last month continued to buy commodities under President Trump’s bailout for farmers hurt by the trade war with China, a large portion of which goes to pork producers.

“They’ve listened to our concerns, and we’re very pleased,” Monroe said.

And American Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Dale Moore and a handful of his colleagues privately outlined their worries about the freeze in USDA loans and federal subsidies with Purdue just before he took the podium Monday to address farmers and ranchers gathered in New Orleans for the Farm Bureau’s annual convention, according to John Newton, the Farm Bureau’s chief economist.

Two days later, Purdue announced that 2,500 employees in the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency were being summoned back — without pay — for three days to hundreds of local offices across the country to help farmers complete paperwork for loan applications, process existing loan payments and open mail to “identify priority items.”

Yet other USDA programs are drastically pared back.

The Rural Housing Service, a $30 billion operation that funds construction, home loans and loan guarantees for homeowners, hospitals, child-care centers, libraries and schools in small-town America — along with rental assistance for the elderly and disabled — is largely shuttered, with thousands of employees across the country on furlough.

As a result, no new loans or guarantees can be processed or closed. Rental assistance is flowing for now but will end in a month if the shutdown continues, according to David Lipsetz, chief executive of the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit group that helps build rural housing.

“This shutdown is hitting poor and middle-class folks the hardest. It’s especially true in rural places,” said Lipsetz, a former senior USDA official who served during the Obama administration. “Why open offices to process farm loans and FHA mortgages and not do the same for rural families ? . . . It’s driving inequality and the poverty of individual rural families while helping out businesses and people buying half-million dollar homes.”

In a statement, USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the department brought in 200 staff members who work on rural development in St. Louis to service existing loans and guarantees.

Murtaugh said the USDA has sought to continue as many services as possible — such as food stamps, which he said are fully funded through February — “working with OMB to establish legal authority to do so.”

“We continue to examine those possibilities as the shutdown continues,” he added.

‘I see people panicking’: In a Coast Guard town, hardship and resolve amid the shutdown

In some cases, even players within the same industry find themselves in starkly different predicaments.

When the shutdown began, members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said they made it clear that it was imperative that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service keep enough managers on the job. Without the inspections the NOAA staff perform, boat operators would not be able to head out to the Bering Sea to catch cod starting Jan. 1 and pollock beginning on Jan. 20.

Chris Oliver, NOAA assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service — an Alaskan himself — tapped funds the agency had collected from industry to keep some employees at work over the past month and brought at least a couple back from furlough this month, according to several individuals briefed on the matter.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) credited Oliver’s “outstanding work” for keeping the fisheries in business.

“Since holiday break, my office and I have worked and been in direct communication with a number of Commerce Department officials to ensure that federal fisheries in Alaska opened on time and fishermen were able to gain the necessary approvals and inspections to get out on the water,” Sullivan said in a statement. “This approach is vastly different from the 2013 government shutdown, which delayed Alaska’s lucrative and iconic crab fishery, and the agency’s efforts at mitigating impacts from the lapse in funding should be commended.”

But some fishing operators on the East Coast have yet to receive similar help — leaving their vessels grounded.

John Lees, managing partner of the scallop fishing vessel Madison Kate in New Bedford, Mass., said he was in the final stages of getting NOAA officials to transfer his federal permit from his old boat to his new one last month when the agency closed. Under federal rules, he has until March 31 to catch 134,000 pounds of scallops under certain conditions.

If he cannot sail, he said, he and his crew stand to lose $1.5 million worth of seafood.

“All we’re looking for now is for NOAA to just assign a number. That’s it,” Lees said in an interview, adding that he is working to reach agency officials amid the short staffing and that his assigned quota could now be out of reach. “It’s possible that we won’t be able to do it.”

NOAA spokeswoman Julie Roberts said in an email that agency staffers were working on key matters, despite the shutdown.

“NOAA continues to conduct enforcement activities for the protection of marine fisheries including quota monitoring, observer activities, and regulatory actions to prevent overfishing,” she said. “This is not specific to Alaska.”

In the uncertain landscape of the shutdown, few groups remain as vulnerable as Native American tribes now cut off from federal assistance.

The Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, whose funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs stopped flowing, has already laid off two-thirds of its tiny police force, along with a sizable share of its court system, firefighters and maintenance crew, tribe chairman Lester Randall said.

Randall said he has tried several times to seek guidance from federal officials in Washington and called regional offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anadarko, Okla., but the employees there have been furloughed.

Two of the laid-off police officers have already found jobs with other police departments, meaning they are unlikely to come back even when the shutdown ends and funds return. Randall’s biggest concern now is trying to prepare the tribe of 1,600 for a snowstorm in their small slice of northeast Kansas, after it cut back the hours of its roads maintenance department.

“It’s real frustrating. We’re left in the dark with whatever you can read from the news,” Randall said. “I have all these members with questions, and I can’t provide answers.”

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.