In the News
Sep 30 2013
By USA Today
WASHINGTON — It's been 17 years since the federal government last faced a partial shutdown because Congress and the president couldn't agree on a spending bill. A lot has changed in that time, leaving federal employees, citizens and even government decision-makers confused about what a shutdown would mean.
Every shutdown is different. The politics that cause them are different. Because of technology and structural overhauls, the way the government functions has changed since 1996. Much of what will happen is unknown.
Here's what we do know about Tuesday's looming shutdown:
1. What causes a shutdown? Under the Constitution, Congress must pass laws to spend money. If Congress can't agree on a spending bill — or if, in the case of the Clinton-era shutdowns, the president vetoes it — the government does not have the legal authority to spend money.
2. What's a continuing resolution? Congress used to spend money by passing a budget first, then 12 separate appropriations bills. That process has broken down, and Congress uses a stopgap continuing resolution, or CR, that maintains spending at current levels for all or part of the year.
3. Why can't Congress agree? The Republican-controlled House has passed a spending bill that maintains spending levels but does not provide funding to implement the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The Democratic Senate insists that the program be fully funded and that Congress pass what they call a "clean" CR.
4. What is a "clean" CR? A continuing resolution without policy changes.
5. Why is this happening now? The government runs on a fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. Shutdowns can happen at other times of the year when Congress passes a partial-year spending bill.
6. Could government agencies ignore the shutdown? Under a federal law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it can be a felony to spend taxpayer money without an appropriation from Congress.
7. When would a shutdown begin? When the fiscal year ends at midnight Monday. Most federal workers would report to work Tuesday, but unless they're deemed "essential," they would work no more than four hours on shutdown-related activities before being furloughed.
8. When would the shutdown end? Immediately after the president signs a spending bill. As a practical matter, it could be noon the following day before most government offices that were shut down would reopen their doors.
9. How many times has the government shut down in the past? Since 1977, there have been 17 shutdowns, according to the Congressional Research Service.
10. How long do shutdowns usually last? Most last no more than three days. Some last less than a day.
11. When was the longest shutdown in history? The longest was also the most recent: from Dec. 16, 1995, through Jan. 5, 1996. That's 21 days.
12. Would this shutdown be different from those in the 1990s? Yes. When the 1995 shutdown started, Congress had already passed three of 13 appropriations bills. (They funded military construction, agriculture, and energy and water projects.) Also, more government services are automated.
THE DEBT LIMIT
13. What's the difference between a shutdown and a debt crisis? In a shutdown, the government lacks the legal authority to spend money on non-essential services. In a debt crisis, the government is mandated to spend money — but doesn't have the legal authority to borrow the money to spend it.
14. Are the two related? Only by timing, which is somewhat coincidental.
15. When will the government run out of borrowing authority? Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew says it could come as soon as Oct. 17.
16. Has the United States ever defaulted on its debt before? No.
17. If the nation hits the debt limit, will government shut down? That's a big unknown question. The Treasury Department has said the most likely scenario is that it would delay payments, paying only those bills it can afford, using daily tax revenue.
18. Will I still get my mail? Yes. The U.S. Postal Service functions as an independent business unit.
19. Can I get a passport? Maybe, but hurry. The Department of State says it has some funds outside the annual congressional appropriation. "Consular operations domestically and overseas will remain 100% operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations," the department says.
20. Can I visit national parks? No. The National Park Service says day visitors will be told to leave immediately, and entrances will be closed.
21. What about campers already in the parks? They will be given two days to leave.
22. Will Washington museums be open? The Smithsonian, the National Zoo and the Holocaust Museum would all be closed. Private museums, such as the Newseum, the Spy Museum and Mount Vernon, would remain open. Rule of thumb: If it's usually free, it's probably closed.
23. What about the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? The Kennedy Center does receive an annual appropriation from Congress, but also runs on ticket revenue and endowment funds. The center expects to stay open through a shutdown.
24. What about the National Archives? All archives and most presidential libraries will be closed, unless they're operated by a private foundation — as all pre-Herbert Hoover presidential museums are. The Federal Records Center Program, which supports other agencies, would continue to operate because it uses a revolving fund.
25. Will the District of Columbia shut down? The district does not have complete autonomy and relies on an appropriation from Congress to operate. So during the shutdowns in the 1990s, trash went uncollected, and many city departments closed. In a departure from past shutdowns, Mayor Vincent Gray has informed the Office of Management and Budget that he has deemed all city employees "essential." The district's own attorney general has declared the mayor's plan illegal.
26. Will the Patent and Trademark Office be open? Yes. The office can continue to operate off user fees and other funds for at least four weeks before having to shut down.
27. Would food safety inspections continue? Mostly. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would continue all safety-related activities. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration would continue inspections to the extent they're paid by user fees, "but inability to investigate alleged violations could hamper corrective action in the long term and could have an immediate impact on members of industry." The Food and Drug Administration would limit its activities but continue to monitor recalls and conduct investigations.
28. Will the government still release economic data? Probably. The weekly unemployment claims number would still come out, and the September jobs report, due out Friday, probably will, too. The Department of Commerce reasons that some of its data is so economically sensitive that delaying it risks that it will be leaked.
29. Would the government continue to enforce wage and hour laws? The laws will still be in effect, but the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division would suspend operations.
30. Will disaster response be affected? No. However, all "non-disaster" grants — such as state and local preparedness programs — would be postponed, the Department of Homeland Security says.
31. Will e-Verify be affected? Yes. The government system to allow companies to voluntarily check the legal work status of its employees would be shut down.
32. Would a shutdown put the brakes on implementing the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare?" No. The state-run exchanges for the uninsured would open as scheduled Tuesday. "The marketplaces will be open on Tuesday, no matter what, even if there is a government shutdown," President Obama said Friday.
33. Why not? Like Social Security or Medicaid, Obamacare is a permanent entitlement that isn't subject to annual funding by Congress. "Many of the core parts of the health care law are funded through mandatory appropriations and wouldn't be affected," Gary Cohen, the Health and Human Services Department official overseeing the health care rollout, said last week.
34. Would seniors continue to get Social Security benefits? Yes. Social Security is a mandatory spending program, and the people who send those checks would continue to work under a legal doctrine called "necessary implication."
35. Can I apply for Social Security benefits, appeal a denial of benefits, change my address or sign up for direct deposit? Yes.
36. Can I get a new or replacement Social Security card, benefit verification statement or earnings record correction? No.
37. Would the government continue to pay unemployment benefits? Yes. The Employment and Training Administration "will continue to provide essential functions, as occurred during the shutdown of 1995," according to the Department of Labor contingency plan.
38. Will I be able to get food stamps? Yes. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is funded through the Recovery Act and from funds that don't expire for another year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
39. What about WIC? No money would be available to pay the administrative costs of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. But because it's administered by states, there may be state funds available.
40. And the federal school lunch program? Schools are reimbursed for these costs on a monthly basis and are allowed to carry over funds from the previous fiscal year. The USDA expects most schools will be able to continue providing meals through October.
41. What will happen to veterans receiving compensation for service- or combat-related wounds and injuries? The Department of Veterans Affairs said if the shutdown continues into late October, it will run out of money for compensation and pension checks to more than 3.6 million veterans who rely on the money to support themselves.
42. Can I still get a federally backed loan? Maybe not. "Federal loans for rural communities, small business owners, families buying a home will be frozen," President Obama said Friday.
43. Does that mean I can't get an FHA mortgage? No. The Federal Housing Administration says it "will endorse new loans under current multi-year appropriation authority in order to support the health and stability of the U.S. mortgage market."
44. Does that mean I can't get a VA mortgage? No. The Department of Veterans Affairs says loans are funded via user fees and should continue. However, during the last shutdown, "loan Guaranty certificates of eligibility and certificates of reasonable value were delayed."
45. Will deceased veterans still be able to get a burial benefit? Yes. Burial benefits, headstones and death notices will still be available.
46. Would the IRS continue to collect taxes? Yes. All payments would be processed. More than 12 million people have requested an extension on their 2012 taxes, which expires Oct. 15.
47. Will my refund be delayed? Possibly, especially if the taxpayer files a paper return.
48. What about taxpayer assistance? Walk-in assistance centers and telephone hotlines would be closed.
49. I'm being audited by the IRS. Would a shutdown affect me? Yes. The IRS will suspend all audit activities.
50. How many federal employees would be furloughed? The government has not given an official estimate.
51. Does anyone have a guess? J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government employees, said he expects the number will be 800,000 to 1 million, out of 2.1 million federal employees. That's consistent with a USA TODAY analysis of 2011 shutdown contingency plans, which found that 59% of non-defense government employees would continue to work.
52. Why do some federal employees continue to work during a shutdown? The law — or at least, the Justice Department's interpretation of it — contains exemptions for several classes of employees: The biggest exemption is for employees necessary to protect public health, safety or property. But property could include government data, ongoing research experiments or other intangibles. Political appointees are exempt because they cannot be placed on leave by law. Employees necessary for the president to carry out his constitutional responsibilities are exempt. Finally, employees whose salaries are paid from sources outside an annual spending bill can still get paid and report to work.
53. Who decides which employees work and which go home? Each agency is responsible for coming up with its own contingency plan, based on guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. Those plans are then sent to the White House for review.
54. Would the president be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The president's $400,000 salary is mandatory spending. If furloughs begin to affect the government's ability to process payroll, his paycheck could be delayed.
55. What about White House staff? Some high-ranking presidential appointees are exempt from the Annual and Sick Leave Act of 1951, which means they can essentially be made to work unpaid overtime. Also, any employee necessary for the president to carry out his constitutional duties would be exempt.
56. And the president's personal aides? The White House has 90 staffers who work in the residence. During a shutdown, 15 of them would stay on the job.
57. Would Congress continue to be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The 27th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1992, holds that "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened." Intended to prevent Congress from voting itself a raise, it also protects members from a pay cut.
58. What about congressional staff? Like other federal employees, they would be deemed essential or non-essential. Essential staff would include those necessary to carry out constitutional responsibilities, such as the parliamentarians, or for protection of members, such as the sergeants-at-arms. Staff of the appropriations committees may also be needed to write the law that would end the shutdown.
59. Would active-duty military be furloughed? No. All active-duty military are essential and should report as scheduled Tuesday, the Department of Defense said Friday.
60. Will civilian defense workers be furloughed? About half of them, or about 400,000, will be sent home, according to the Defense Department's contingency plan.
61. Would active-duty military be paid during a shutdown? If a shutdown lasts longer than a week, the Pentagon might not be able to process its payroll in time for the Oct. 15 paychecks, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said Friday. The House passed a separate bill early Sunday that would appropriate money for active-duty and reserve paychecks regardless of the shutdown — and also pay for support services to make sure they get paid. That bill passed the House 422-0, but still must go to the Senate.
62. Could federal employees simply volunteer their services? No. A 19th-century federal law forbids volunteers because the government doesn't want them filing claims for back pay after the shutdown is over, according to a legal analysis by Washington attorney Raymond Natter.
63. Would federal employees get paid retroactively, even if they didn't work?Maybe. Congress granted retroactive pay to furloughed workers after the shutdowns of the mid-1990s, but that wouldn't necessarily happen again. "I believe this time is going to be much different. This is a much different Congress than the 1995 Congress," said Cox, federal employee union president. "I'm not sure that they'd even want to go back and pay the people who worked."
THE LONG TERM
64. How much money would a shutdown save taxpayers? Most likely, it wouldn't. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says shutdowns cost money in terms of contingency planning, lost user fees and back pay. A government estimate after the shutdown in 1995-96 estimated its cost at $1.4 billion.
65. What effect would a shutdown have on the economy? Economists say even a short shutdown — of three or four days — would begin to shave decimal points off economic growth. A sustained shutdown of three or four weeks "would do significant economic damage," economist Mark Zandi told USA TODAY.
66. What about the stock market? The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 3.7% during the 1995-96 government shutdown, according to S&P Capital IQ. Stocks quickly rebounded after the government got back to work, rising 10.5% the month after the shutdown ended.
Contributing: Adam Shell, Tim Mullaney in New York, Gregg Zoroya in McLean, Va., Raju Chebium of Gannett News Service; Rick Maze and Andrew Tilghman of Military Times; Surae Chinn of WUSA-TV in Washington; and the Associated Press.
By Eli Saslow
September 25, 2013
The congressman had been called a “starvation expert” by analysts on TV and a “monster” by colleagues in the House of Representatives. Protesters had visited his offices carrying petitions demanding he resign. And now, six months into his crusade to overhaul the food stamp program, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) departed the Capitol to address his most wary audience yet: the people whose government benefits he hoped to curtail.
“Stick to your talking points this time if you can,” said a staff member, handing him a sheet of those talking points minutes before they left for the event.
“It’s too late to start being cautious,” Southerland said, folding the paper and leaving it on his desk. It was already late summer, and he hoped to pass the most significant food stamp overhaul in decades by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The event was listed on his schedule as a “Poverty Tour,” and Southerland had invited a dozen Republican policy experts to join him. They boarded a bus provided by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and traveled across Washington to a job training center, where three homeless men idled outside. Southerland stood at the front of the bus to address his colleagues. He looked like the funeral director he had been before running for Congress in 2008 – shoes polished, suit pressed, eyes solemn, head bowed as if in prayer. “This is an important moment for us,” he said. If only his tough-love message could resonate with the unemployed, then maybe he could win over a divided Congress.
“What we are fighting for is a cultural shift,” Southerland told his colleagues on the bus. “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me. This is a defining moral issue of our time.”
Southerland’s food stamp proposal, which on Thursday the House narrowly voted to approve, would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours each week in order to receive government food assistance. “It’s the simple solution,” he said in March at a news conference introducing the idea. But in the months since, he has learned that no idea is simple in Washington, especially not one that would fundamentally alter a program that has tripled in size during the past decade, growing to support a record 47 million people at a cost of $80 billion each year.
In a divided Congress, few debates have been more fractious than the one over food stamps and few proposals have been as contentious as Southerland’s. Republicans say his idea would encourage people to find jobs, decreasing government spending while adding workers to the economy. Democrats say it would leave millions of the most vulnerable Americans hungry at a time when food insecurity is already approaching historic highs.
Southerland’s proposal passed the House despite receiving no Democratic support, as part of a bill that would cut 3.8 million people and $4 billion from the food stamp program next year. But that vote was only the first of many. In order to become law, his work requirement must survive a conference committee between leaders in the House and Senate, two more congressional votes and a president already threatening a veto.
“Getting something done here can be like navigating a maze,” Southerland said.
On this day, the maze led him up the stairs to the training center, where 25 residents of Southeast Washington were crammed into a classroom to learn tips about preparing for a job interview in fast food. All were unemployed. Most were among the 24 percent of Washington residents who receive between $100 and $600 each month in food assistance.
“Shower. Tuck in your shirt. Make eye contact with the interviewer,” the teacher was saying.
“Make sure your belt and your shoes match,” Southerland interjected, walking into the room with his colleagues and then introducing himself.
He began as he always does by telling his family story, which aides refer to as “the Gospel of Work.” His grandfather quit school in the sixth grade and made himself into the busiest funeral director in Panama City, Fla., continuing to work until he died at 91. Southerland started helping in that same funeral home before he turned 10, answering phones, washing cars and arranging flowers as he learned the family business. He required each of his four daughters to apply for work at a nearby restaurant on the day she turned 15. “Work is life. Work is opportunity,” he said now. He quoted from the Bible, citing a passage about how God created Adam to tend the Garden of Eden. “Even in paradise, we worked,” he said. “Work is not a punishment. It is what connects you with your purpose in life. What’s your purpose?”
One by one, the men and women in the classroom stood to share their plans. One wanted to become a teacher. Another said his “purpose” was to make at least $10 an hour. A man who had just cared for his dying mother thought maybe he could become a hospice nurse. “I liked the feeling of taking care of her, just knowing I was needed,” he said.
“Yes!” Southerland shouted, clapping his hands, punching his fist against the air. “Now that’s a purpose. Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Swim out to it.”
An older woman raised her hand in the corner of the classroom. She explained that she had been on public assistance most of her life. Food stamps helped her feed three kids. “I’ve been through dark times,” she said. “I needed help, and I got it. Do you believe that’s wrong?”
Southerland thought for a few seconds and then took a step toward her. “I believe that if you are going to eat, you should bring something to the table,” he said. The woman started to interrupt, but Southerland held up his hand. “That can be volunteering. That can be delivering Meals on Wheels, But somehow you’ve got to contribute. “I believe in a God-given purpose,” he told her.
“I believe that being dependent makes you more vulnerable. I believe work is the greatest gift you will ever receive.”
For the past six months, Southerland had been translating those beliefs into a succession of 14-hour workdays, trying to will his proposal into existence. He had delivered 45 speeches about food stamps, consulted with 20 anti-poverty experts and presented his idea to 13 governors. He had studied persuasive-writing techniques and read half a dozen books about effective leadership. And yet the biggest legislative project of his life still existed only on paper, inside two binders on his office shelf labeled “Important.”
Southerland had left his job at the funeral home in 2007 to run for office on a platform of small government and Second Amendment rights despite having no legislative experience and no connections in Washington. When it looked as if he would win, to become the first Republican elected in his district in 130 years, he went to the library to study books about the legislative process. Write a bill. Get a sponsor. Go to committee. Debate. Vote. Senate. President. Only in the past few months, Southerland said, had he begun to learn “all the behind-the-scenes steps nobody talks about.”
His food stamp proposal was not, in fact, his proposal. It was something that was handed to him by a stroke of political luck. He had wanted to pursue food stamp reform since arriving in Washington, but he lacked authority as a junior lawmaker relegated to subcommittees on fisheries and highway transportation. Instead, the idea for a work requirement came from 17 state human service secretaries who gathered in November to pitch their proposal to Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee, who forwarded some of those ideas to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who suggested the human service secretaries work with Southerland because, Cantor said, he was “a passionate true believer.”
“Absolutely! This is what I’m about,” Southerland had said, promising to make the proposal his No. 1 priority until it passed.
Now his color-coded office schedule had become a rainbow of food stamp events: red for anti-poverty tours, blue for private meetings, black for lobbyist appointments and the rare sliver of teal for personal time. He was meeting regularly with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, to learn how to sell the idea by using active language, such as “earned success,” “sweat equity” and “upward mobility.” He was asking Newt Gingrich to give supportive interviews and Rick Santorum to write op-eds.
The best chance to enact reform, Southerland had decided, was to make the specifics of his proposal “utterly unobjectionable,” he said. Even though he believed in a 40-hour workweek, his proposal would mandate only 20. Even though he wanted it to be a national requirement, states would be able to implement or ignore it. There would be exemptions for the elderly, the disabled and mothers with children under 1. Some conservatives refused to back his proposal because it was “too soft,” he said, but Southerland was willing to trade their endorsements for more-widespread support.
Earlier in the summer, he stood on the House floor to present his idea to the entire chamber for the first time. He planned to speak for two minutes. After 10 seconds, he noticed a dozen Democrats moving toward a microphone, lining up for rebuttals.
“Egregious,” one said.
“Unbelievably misguided,” said another.
Several weeks later, still reeling from what he called the “debacle on the floor,” Southerland climbed into a black SUV in northwest Florida to drive across his congressional district with Jonathan Hayes, his chief of staff. They had booked seven events in two days, a trip that would cover more than 300 miles, but Southerland was looking forward to the drive. He hung his suit jacket in the back seat and grabbed a tobacco pipe. “Even if we’re working nonstop, the stress fades when I’m here,” he said.
His trips home sometimes made him wonder why he had ever decided to leave. In Panama City, he had left behind the wife he met in first grade and their four daughters, two of whom were still in high school. He missed his single-story house in the Panama City suburbs, where friends mostly wanted to talk about deer season and where even the most ardent Democrats respected the Southerlands for their work ethic and their Southern Baptist faith.
“In Washington, if someone disagrees with you, the problem must be your heart – you must be evil,” he said. “Here, if we fight, we are only fighting about an idea.”
On some days, Southerland also pined for his old job: 450 funerals every year, each not only a crisis for the family of the deceased but also a chance to make an immediate impact on the living. The funeral home had five phone lines, including one that rang straight to Southerland’s house when a death occurred in the middle of the night. Stillbirths, abductions, car accidents — he worked the funerals that others in his funeral home tried to avoid. He stood beside relatives as they visited the body. He rode with them in the hearse. Sometimes, at the grave sites, he sang hymns in a deep and mournful baritone. Nobody ever questioned his heart or his motives. He never doubted the value of his work.
Each funeral helped clarify his priorities. No matter whom they buried – backwoods alcoholics and resort owners, immigrants and veterans, in birch boxes and blue velvet caskets – the best eulogies remained the same. They were stories of family, friendship, ambition and hard work. Work created a legacy. Work provided meaning.
“I never heard anybody remembered for the things they didn’t do, or the impact they didn’t make, or the dreams they didn’t have,” Southerland said as the SUV crossed into Liberty County, the center of his district.
He looked out the window at the twisting Apalachicola River, its brown water buffeted by green cedars and Spanish moss. Some locals in Liberty County believe the Garden of Eden had once existed on a bluff high above the river, and the land had been home to Seminole and Creek tribes, Spanish missionaries, British settlers and the Confederate Army – a place where societies rose and then fell. On his drives through the area, Southerland sometimes wondered if he was witnessing another civilization in decline. Many stores in downtown Bristol were unoccupied and boarded up. The poverty rate was 25 percent. A pawnshop advertised “cheap guns,” and a gas station sign read, “Food stamps welcome here.”
“Food stamps welcome everywhere,” Southerland said, seeing the sign.
“So many people, just stuck,” Hayes said.
“This is the fifth generation of dependency,” Southerland said. “We have encouraged people to be sharecroppers instead of owning the land. The casualty of human capital, only eternity knows.”
They crossed through the dense pines of Apalachicola National Forest, where intergenerational poverty was hidden behind the trees. Southerland had received letters from people here who lived in trailers on unincorporated land. They wanted help buying food. They wanted opportunities for their children. How could Southerland convince them that this was one problem government alone could not solve? The United States had already spent 50 years and $16 trillion on the war against poverty, and yet the wealth gap continued to grow and the rate of extreme poverty in rural Florida had increased for eight consecutive years. If anything, government was complicit, Southerland thought. It had drained people’s ambition by giving them just enough money to stay poor. “It’s a travesty, what we’ve done,” he said. Food stamps were necessary to ward off desperation for the truly vulnerable – the disabled, sick, elderly – but they didn’t count as a way of life. The only chance to create opportunities for the next generation, he said, was to do what his grandfather had done, accepting groceries and tools in exchange for burial services to keep the business alive that first year; or what his father had done, risking the family’s emergency savings to build a bigger funeral home; or what Southerland himself had done, working 80-hour weeks to double the family business and expanding it into granite and timber.
“Government might help you survive,” he said, “but work creates lasting improvement.”
Now Southerland arrived in Tallahassee to tour a job training facility for the homeless, where he hoped to tell residents about his proposal. Fifteen minutes into the visit, he noticed a videographer following him on the tour. He recognized the man as a Democratic activist who was making campaign videos for Southerland’s opponent in the next election. The ads would splice Southerland’s words and make him into a caricature, he thought. They would dismiss his qualifications and distort his ideas. They would question not only his policies but also his motives.
He pulled one of the program’s founders aside midway through the tour.
“I’m mostly going to listen today,” Southerland said, gesturing at the videographer. “Anything I say here could be turned against me.”
This was the part of being a congressman that Southerland had begun referring to as the “devil’s duty” — the strategic part, when true belief capitulated to politics. And as the end of the fiscal year neared, it was politicking that dominated his schedule, first in Florida and then back in Washington.
In the run-up to Thursday’s vote, Southerland met with Republicans four times in Cantor’s office, and Cantor promised to push for a work requirement in the final version of the bill. But Democrats in the House and the Senate continued to object to even minor changes, promising to defeat Southerland’s proposal even after it passed the House by seven votes. They disagreed not only with Southerland’s proposal but also with his diagnosis of the problem and with his facts.
He said food stamp spending was “growing into oblivion”; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.
He cited data from the Agriculture Department indicating that half of food stamp recipients had stopped looking for work; Democrats countered with data also from the USDA showing that the fastest-growing demographic on food stamps was people who did work, but in jobs that paid so little they still qualified for the benefit.
He said his proposal would encourage people to enter the workforce; they said encouragement was useless since his proposal provided no guaranteed money for job training programs.
He said that only working-age adults would be affected by the requirement; they questioned what would happen to the children of those working-age adults if their parents didn’t find jobs and their families lost food stamps.
“We are dealing with opposite realities,” Southerland said. “So you fight and fight and fight and maybe get half of what you want.”
One night, exhausted and eager for a break, he left the Capitol to have dinner with his eldest daughter, Samantha, along with Hayes and his communications director, Matt McCullough. Samantha had graduated from college in Florida and moved to suburban Virginia to learn about government and be closer to her father.
“How’s life in the crazy Capitol?” she asked now, over milkshakes and burgers.
“This place is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Southerland said.
He explained that he had spent the past few days studying 20 years of food stamp policy, trying to differentiate himself from his colleagues by becoming an expert. “Nobody here really knows anything,” he said. He thought about that for a second and then reconsidered. “There’s one other guy,” he said. “A Democrat.” He told her about a Massachusetts liberal named Jim McGovern, who had been giving a speech about hunger on the House floor each week. McGovern had rallied the Democrats against Southerland’s proposal. Out of 435 people in the House, he was the only one who had studied food stamps just as hard and who seemed to care just as much.
“What does he say about all of this to you?” his daughter asked. “I don’t know,” Southerland said. “I haven’t talked to him.”
“What?” she said. “Seriously? Never? That doesn’t make sense.” She knew her dad as a conciliator who valued mentoring young men at church, yearly hunting trips with his three siblings and funeral director retreats to the mountains. “Your whole thing is connecting with people,” she said. “Everybody likes you.” And yet here was another Washington lawmaker, elected to solve the same problems, who had become an expert on the same issue, who worked in the same place, and her dad had never met with him?
“Can’t you ask him to coffee?” she asked. “You could work together.”
“That wouldn’t play so well with the conservative base,” Hayes joked.
“Or back in district,” McCullough said.
“Honey, look,” Southerland said, staring at her intently, pleading with her to understand. “Washington is a runaway freight train. There isn’t time here for anything.” He reached for two empty milkshake glasses to help him illustrate the problem, setting the glasses side by side on the table, their rims touching. “This is me, and this is the other guy when we get to Washington,” he said. “Different ideas, different people, but we are close. We are touching. Democrat and Republican. We can do something with this.”
He started to slowly pull the glasses in separate directions, ticking off reasons for the escalating divide. “Fundraising. Campaigns,” he said, moving the glasses farther apart. “Votes, strategy, rushing around, lobbyists, name-calling,” he continued, spreading the glasses farther, moving his daughter’s plate to clear a path for one of them. “I have my meetings and they have theirs. I run by them. They run by me. It’s all about winning, winning, winning. Winning – not fixing problems – defines all.”
Now Southerland stretched his arms as far as he could, placing each glass at a distant edge of the table. Each was just an inch from falling and shattering on the ground. This was the congressional divide over food stamps and so much else. This was Washington in 2013 – one place, Southerland was beginning to realize, where legislation depended on so much more than hard work.
“So now I’m here and they’re way over there,” he said, pointing to the glasses. “We can barely see each other. We can’t solve anything like this.”
Aug 16 2013
Scott Carroll (The News Herald)
MARIANNA — National policy dominated discussions at a Marianna town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, on Thursday.
The public one-hour session at Chipola College allotted about 35 minutes for Southerland to answer questions from about 80 attendees. Of the nine written questions drawn from a basket, seven were about national issues, including immigration and health care.
Most-discussed by Southerland was immigration. It was the first issue Southerland spoke about before answering questions, and was the subject of the first two questions addressed to the congressman.
Southerland said immigration will be the first issue Congress picks up again when it reconvenes Sept. 9.
“I think every American recognizes the fact that there needs to be improvements in immigration,” Southerland said. “I was down at the border, by the way, in April to see our border and to see the challenges that, in my opinion, are just not really being addressed and I think our Constitution calls for us to address ... . The very first thing that I think you’re going to find in the House of Representatives is we will squarely come out and demand we secure our borders.”
Southerland, who visited Jackson Hospital in Marianna before the town hall meeting, has faced criticism for voting for two budgets authored by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan that would’ve ended Medicare’s guaranteed benefit and was widely projected to significantly increase health care costs. Thursday, Southerland said he supports “common sense” solutions that would lead to more affordable and higher-quality health care. Such a solution would be more options for health care consumers, he said.
He also noted that he voted against sequestration, which cut hospital Medicare reimbursements to hospitals 2 percent – or $45 billion – over the next nine years.
“I voted no for sequestration because I stood in front of you and I know that I promised I would not do anything to harm our seniors,” he said.
But most talk of health care at the meeting focused on attendees’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Southerland reassured attendees that he and the Republican Party will continue to working to repeal the law.
Southerland and his staff traveled to Tallahassee after the meeting.
Jun 20 2013
Rep. Steve Southerland, II and Peter Cove, founder of America Works
Just months after launching America’s War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson made a brief visit to South Florida for the dedication of newly constructed Florida Atlantic University in October 1964.
President Johnson warned in his address that day of depriving children in need of a quality education, because doing so “perpetuates poverty as a national weakness.” While any parent would agree with the immeasurable value of a good education, nearly 50 years of hindsight has taught us some important lessons about poverty that go far beyond the classroom.
Johnson’s plan — and the 30 years of welfare policy that followed — were based on the faulty assumption that structural poverty could be eradicated by simply spending more money, creating new federal programs and raising taxes to sustain bigger government. Now, roughly $16 trillion later, there are more Americans living in poverty than when Johnson stepped to the FAU podium nearly a half century ago.
So how did the War on Poverty dissolve into a withering battle of attrition, wearing down generations of vulnerable families at a cost rivaling the entire size of our current national debt?
It turns out the anti-poverty equation was missing one of the most important variables of all: work.
By not requiring work or job training for healthy beneficiaries, the federal government perpetuated a decades-long cycle of dependency that smothered the individual’s spirit of earned success, while bloating the size of an already unmanageable Washington bureaucracy.
When states such as Wisconsin began to initiate work requirements for welfare benefits in the early 1990s, they found that welfare caseloads fell, and families in need saw their incomes rise. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ushered in a work requirement program that reduced welfare rolls by hundreds of thousands over his two terms in office.
As the winds of change reached Washington, President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress came together to build upon the states’ success in promoting work. Requiring work was not a punitive measure; it was for the moral wellbeing of both person and country. The results were conclusive and undeniable.
Within five years of the bipartisan Welfare Reform Act of 1996, welfare caseloads dropped more than 60 percent. Work participation by never-married single mothers reached historic highs. Child poverty fell to record lows. And earnings for participating families rose substantially.
As a result of reduced welfare caseloads, precious resources could be more effectively and efficiently directed to families truly in need, thereby strengthening the frayed edges of the social safety net.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a provision that would empower states with the choice of initiating test projects that apply these same common-sense work requirements to the federal food stamp program.
In fact, citizens would be able to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits under no less than a dozen different work-related responsibilities. These activities include searching for a job and receiving career or technical training.
Governors would have the flexibility of remaining under the current federal system or applying work requirements in their state. They would also have the ability to choose the maximum age of participation. States that are successful in moving citizens from welfare to work will receive half of all cost savings from the program.
Should these state demonstration projects prove as successful in promoting self-sufficiency as the welfare pilot projects of the early 1990s, we will be well on our way to restoring accountability and opportunity to our nation’s food stamp program.
Now more than ever, the American people have a choice to make: continue down the road of failure and dependency, or change course to incentivize work, opportunity and earned success. We need to implement policy changes that reflect the lessons of our past or we will be doomed to repeat them.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If this country is ever demoralized, it will come from trying to live without work.”
The time to act is now.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland II represents Congressional District 2 in Florida. Peter Cove is the founder of America Works, a private, for-profit company that has placed more than 350,000 previously dependent people into jobs.
Deborah Buckhalter (Jackson County Floridian)
U.S. Congressman Steve Southerland was guest speaker at Wednesday’s Marianna Rotary Club meeting. He talked about various things -- including the political “hit list” he says he’s already on as he begins his second term as the House Representative for Florida’s 2 nd Congressional District.
The Republican said campaigning has already begun for the 2016 election year, with Democratic opposition already posting billboards aimed at defeating him if he should seek a third term.
He said he will continue to defend his support of traditional family values and to fight for other things he believes in as he moves through his second term and potentially a third.
Southerland then turned his attention to various hot issues in Washington, and spoke of one successful bill he was proud to have supported, the Restore Act that sent BP oil spill recovery funds directly to the counties most affected in north Florida and four other Gulf states. Rather than the money being filtered first through the legislature, where he feared the fund could have been “siphoned off” to areas less affected, Southerland said the money can now go to its purpose of restoration and recovery where the spill dried up tourism, closed fisheries and otherwise hurt communities.
Southerland said he was happy to be assigned in his first term to committees is agriculture, natural resource, transportation and infrastructure, saying those were good fits for the concerns of his district. “We have been very busy making sure our rural counties get the support they need from the federal government and making sure we create an environment that your economy can thrive in. Sometimes we do a better job than others at doing that, and sometimes the federal government fails miserably at that, but it very, very important to me,” he said.
On the Natural Resources committee, Southerland said he is sometimes frustrated by policies that hamper the ability of people to take fair advantage of national forest lands. Often, he said, the Department of Interior’s oversight of those lands run counter to common sense.
“We you see, down in the Apalachicola National Forest, more trees rotting than we are harvesting, that is sinful. A national forest was designed by Congress to be a working national forest, not a national park. We have national parks; we don’t harvest any timber in national parks. But a national forest is designed to be a place ... where communities that live around those perimeters are able to log and harvest and have some economic benefit to those communities. I believe the nation forest service in many ways has failed in that area.” Southerland blamed poor management practices for some of the large wildfires the nation has seen in recent years, indicating those might have been avoided with appropriate management practices in place to clear the forest floor from the “fuel” that can make a forest “a tinderbox” in the event of a lightning strike that sparks a fire. He said, however, that the southeastern United States does a better job that other regions in managing those lands.
Southerland said he is also upset by what he feels is an over-reaching fisheries regulator who wants to “turn the Gulf of Mexico into an aquarium,” and that some regulations are not bases on good data and “absolutely strip us of our God-given right to fish.” He said he finds it inappropriate, for instance, that, in counting fish populations as a regulatory barometer, fisheries officials refuse to count those congregated around reefs, where the fish naturally seek shelter and could be counted to accurately reflect species populations.
The National Marine Fisheries commission he said, last year shorten the fisheries season and set bag limits so low that the economies of the communities dependent on the fisheries are being devastated and that he is determined to see a change in that circumstance.
Southerland also hinted at his support of the Keystone Pipeline initiative as a job creator and a way of reducing the cost of energy.
Asked about the continuing quest to find out more about those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, Southerland had this to say. “We know the individual (suspect) who was killed spent six months in Russia; Russia told us that he was returning and that we needed to keep our eyes on him, they communicated that to the CIA. That did happen, so somewhere, somebody dropped the ball…I think Homeland Security, the CIA and the FBI, we have to have a meeting of the minds…I'm not sure yet who bears all that responsibility, but we’re looking and we’re working to find that out.”
Southerland made clear his position on the idea of welfare reform. “If you are of working age, and you are physically, mentally, psychologically able to work, it is a sin for us to pay you not to work,” he commented.
On debt and the sequestration or debt-limit bill, Southerland said he didn’t vote for sequestration because doing so would have meant he’d have to break his campaign promise not to do anything to hurt Medicare. Southerland said sequestration cut that program by $115 billion. Instead, he said, he voted twice to replace sequestration with more flexibility within departments which would allow their managers to, rather than making a 2 percent across-the-board cut in spending, would have allowed them to decide what needed cuts and what needed to be left at full funding.
Southerland said he’ll be back to Jackson County in the future to update the community further about his take on what’s happening in Washington.
Apr 25 2013
Valerie Garman (The News Herald)
PANAMA CITY — The city of Blountstown, located in Northeast Calhoun County, operates on a $3 million per year budget and is struggling to keep up with infrastructure needs.
“It’s no cheaper to fix things here than it is in a big city,” said City Manager Emory Pierce. “But in big cities with multi-million dollar budgets, a couple of thousand dollars to fix something is nothing.”
The story is similar for rural communities across the Panhandle region, and U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, is hoping a new bill might help those areas he said “form the backbone of North and Northwest Florida.”
Southerland recently introduced the Building Rural Communities Act, a bill aimed at giving rural government officials the necessary tools to plan large-scale improvement projects in a more cost-effective manner.
Co-sponsored by Rep. Mike McIntyre, D- N.C., the legislation would channel between 3 and 5 percent of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Essential Communities Facilities loan and grant program toward technical assistance and financial planning for rural communities.
“Unfortunately, across America many of these bedrock communities are fading away because they can’t match the access to infrastructure and services that larger cities provide,” Southerland said. “Our legislation will make it easier for rural communities to thrive by providing the technical assistance and project planning they need to strengthen public safety, public health, and public access to upgraded services – all at no additional cost to taxpayers.”
Pierce said funding issues have halted a project to run a force main sewer line from Altha, a small town to the northwest, to the Blountstown wastewater treatment plant. Currently, all of Altha’s buildings run off of septic tanks.
“Without real community sewer lines, they are severely limited in Altha and along that entire corridor toward Blountstown,” Pierce said.
He said the Calhoun County School District is exploring options for a new high school in Altha, but the current infrastructure cannot support a structure that size.
Overall, Pierce said he would support any bill that could potentially help rural areas like Blountstown.
“We have the normal aging infrastructure that all cities big and small have, and we are searching for funding to help with our internally generated funds,” said Pierce, who noted the city cannot raise utility rates for fear of losing customers. “All people and businesses here are strapped. If we raise rates, I would estimate we would lose several customers and the community just can’t stand that.”
Southerland’s bill was referred to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture for further consideration.
Apr 08 2013
Deborah Buckhalter (JC Floridan)
U.S. Congressman Steve Southerland was in Marianna on Monday to announce his intention to file a bill which, if passed as proposed, would expand the reach of an existing USDA technical assistance fund. A set-aside within the USDA’s Rural Development-Essential Community Facilities (CF) program, the assistance fund is currently limited to use on water and wastewater projects. Through it, Marianna recently obtained money to get the technical assistance it needed to carry out a drainage improvement plan associated with a street project.
Expanding the use of the fund would allow rural communities to hire consultants to help them find and compete for USDA grants and loans to fund a wider range of projects, things like improved police and fire stations, health clinics, senior centers, courthouses and other assets.
The legislation, as proposed, would also allow local governments to use the funding to train employees, and get financial advice in trying to not only secure government grants and loans, but also in setting up a repayment plan for the loans. The bill also includes provisions that would allow the communities to engage experts who would monitor and help them properly maintain the funded facilities after they’re completed.
Southerland wants 3-5 percent of the CF fund set aside for this type of assistance. If roughly $21 million is devoted to the CF fund this year as expected, the set-aside would mean that from $630,000 to a little more than $1 million would be available for rural communities to request.
In Southerland’s 2 nd Congressional District, of which Jackson County is a part, there are 14 counties; 12 of those are rural in nature, he said, and could potentially benefit greatly from the dedication of funds to provide them technical assistance across a wider range of projects.
Southerland said he believes there is bi-partisan support for his proposal, called the Building Rural Communities Act. He said he expects to file it soon after he returns to Washington for session this week.
State legislator Marti Coley joined Southerland at Monday’s announcement, the Representative and Speaker Pro Tempore expressing her support of the plan. Southerland revealed the bill at a public meeting in the engine bay outside the Marianna Fire Department main station, located at Marianna City Hall.
Also joining Southerland for the announcement were representatives of the non-profit Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, which works with USDA in providing technical assistance for hire to communities on water and wastewater projects. That entity supports Southerland’s proposal, and a representative of the organization said it wants to expand into some of the other areas of assistance that his bill addresses.
Southerland said his legislation is modeled after the technical assistance program for water and wastewater, which he said he believes has been of great service to communities which could not otherwise afford to hire high-caliber technical experts.
He also said that, because the technical assistance fund would be taken from the already- established CF program, the set-aside would mean no additional cost to taxpayers.
Apr 02 2013
Jessica McCarthy (Panama City News Herald)
PANAMA CITY — Civics lessons usually come from textbooks, but Jinks Middle School students got to go to the source Tuesday when U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland paid a visit.
Southerland spent about an hour with students, talking about different areas of government and answering questions from students. He talked about what it was like to grow up in Panama City, his experiences running for Congress and how important it is for students to work to build the future.
“Growing up here, being a local product, graduating from middle school and high school here and now I’m a member of Congress and I’m just like you,” he said.
He said he regularly schedules time with students around his district.
“No matter what political party these students associate with, the important part is they take an active role in creating their future and America operates best when all hands are on deck,” said Southerland, a Republican. “I want to inject the element of personal responsibility.”
Students’ questions ranged from how hard his job is to how much he makes a year to ethnic diversity in Congress. Some students also wanted to know what kind of music he listens to, how he felt when he won his first election and whether he would put more money into education budgets.
He talked to the students about how important their vote was, giving a real life example of a local school board race that came down to two votes, but did not limit the discussion to civics. He also talked about being rich in what he called the right things, friends and family, the value of hard work and playing by the rules.
He told the students there would be bad days where the ball didn’t bounce their way, but over the long haul, if they worked hard, told the truth and played by the rules, more often than not, that ball would bounce their way and they would have peace of mind.
The students cheered their support after Southerland said he didn’t like the FCAT although the cheering quieted a little when he said he is in favor of testing, just not so much pressure and weight being placed with one test.
He said he was impressed with how much the students already knew.
“Their questions and answers and knowledge of civics and government was as good or better than any other (school) group I’ve spoken to,” Southerland said. “Kudos go to the school district and kudos to Jinks and the instructors for doing a good job.”
WJHG-TV (Panama City)
BONIFAY - Five years ago, Doctors Memorial Hospital in Bonifay launched a new era in health care, openings a new 48,000 square feet facility, double the size of the old hospital. But, the road to that new facility was long and difficult.
"We started off trying to get approval from the government" explained Doctors Memorial Board Chairman, Joe Sowell. "We had to get a referendum with Holmes County and we got it. And it passed with about 80 percent."
But Sowell was worried looming federal budget cuts would derail the community's hard work. "I'm afraid it's going to be very negative" he said. "Don't know all the consequences of it yet, but few little things I have saw, it has more of a negative impact than a positive."
Hospital administrator Joann Baker shared Sowell's concern for the uncertain future.
"We're still unsure of what's going to happen at Congress, how it's going to effect the rural hospitals. But, I would love for them to keep in mind that each community does need their hospital" Baker told us.
Congressman Steve Southerland said he was interested in knowing what Doctor's Memorial Hospital needed. He toured the facility Monday and updated administrators about what was going on in Washington.
"There's some [hospital] programs that probably need to be phased out, and then probably some that need to be built up a little better" Southerland said. "So I'm eager to talk to administrators this morning about some of the health care challenges they face."
For now, administrators said they would continue to treat their patients, and hope for the best.
Jan 26 2013
Valerie Garman, The News Herald
PANAMA CITY — As U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland transitions into his second term in Congress, he is hopeful lawmakers on Capitol Hill can get back to the basics to solve the country’s fiscal problems.
“When you feel like you’re stuck in the mud, you go back and look at the basics,” said Southerland, R-Panama City. “We’re like a vehicle that’s stuck in neutral.”
With the 113th Congress under way, Southerland said finding a solution to the country’s financial troubles is one of the biggest challenges lawmakers will face this year.
“You can’t talk about the challenges we face without talking about the fiscal issues here in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We have a mountain of deficit and debt and we are spending money we don’t have.”
For Southerland, the solution comes from developing a budget — something he points out the Senate has not done in the last four years — leading the House Republicans to outline an ultimatum: agree on a budget or receive no paycheck.
Members of the House approved a measure Wednesday that would require both houses of Congress to pass a budget before the federal debt limit can be increased. Southerland stood in support of the legislation, dubbed “No Budget, No Pay,” which says congressional pay will be withheld if either house fails to meet the April 15 budget deadline. Although some constitutional scholars have questioned whether the legislation violates the 27th Amendment, which deals with changing congressional pay, Republicans are confident it would pass constitutional muster.
“We will raise the debt ceiling under one condition: you pass a budget in the Senate,” said Southerland, who noted Congress is required to pass a budget annually by law. “To say that we can just wing it without a budget process is very nearsighted and it’s just wrong.”
As Congress stares down yet another debt ceiling, Southerland hopes to push for a “multipronged plan” that combines tax reform, regulatory reform and federal spending cuts, as well as explores ways to stimulate growth.
“The challenge is, how do we find consensus in split government to spend money responsibly and stimulate growth responsibly,” Southerland said. “We’ve got to make sure we pay the government’s bills.”
Southerland said he voted against the fiscal cliff bill approved earlier this month because he did not feel the package solved the problems on the table, all the while decreasing take-home pay for working Americans.
“We didn’t do anything to solve the debt and deficit crisis the country is in,” he said. “The reason I didn’t vote in favor of the bill is because I didn’t feel it was a solution.”
While President Barack Obama outlined a liberal vision for the country in his inaugural speech Monday, Southerland said he stood in disagreement with many of his philosophies.
“The underlying summary of the president’s inaugural speech was that government will solve all of our challenges, and I disagree with that,” he said. “I think oftentimes government makes our challenges worse; government has grown to a size where it’s too big.”
“The last two years have been a tremendous growing experience,” said Southerland, who noted his first term involved learning how to run a congressional office with a focus on communicating to constituents, organizing staff and establishing himself in three House Committees: Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure.
Southerland said the RESTORE Act, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill-related legislation passed by Congress in June, was probably the most significant piece of legislation he was involved in during his first term.
“I think one of the most productive issues was our collaboration on the RESTORE Act,” Southerland said. “The RESTORE Act is such a needed piece of legislation to really restore the” affected states.
Southerland also is entering his second term recently elected by fellow Republican sophomores to serve as their class representative to the House Republican leadership during the 113th Congress. The sophomore Republicans comprise about one-third of the House of Representatives, with about 75 members of the class.
“We have the opportunity to determine the direction we go,” Southerland said. “To sit every day with the speaker and the majority leader, it’s a great honor.”
Southerland said he believes he was chosen to serve due to his efforts to build relationships within the House. He also was appointed by Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster to serve as vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
“I enjoy a broad cross section of relationships across the country,” he said. “I have really focused on building relationships with my classmates. I have the trust to represent them fairly.”