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'Decisions in Washington are affecting people on Washington Avenue'

Alexander Sinn • Jan 4, 2019 at 10:00 AM

A newly Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives that convened Thursday has shifted power in the nearly two-week-long government shutdown. 

The shutdown, which began Dec. 22, hinges on President Donald Trump’s desire for a $5.6 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a measure opposed by Democrats.

As many as 800,000 federal employees have worked without the guarantee of pay during the shutdown, including 42,000 members of the Coast Guard — about 80 of whom are stationed in Grand Haven.

An action by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in late December ensured Coasties did not miss their recent paycheck, but pay is not guaranteed in January if the shutdown continues.

The Coast Guard continues its duties during the shutdown, according to Lt. Brian Howard of the Grand Haven Sector Field Office, including search-and-rescue missions and other life-saving operations.

However, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary has been ordered to stand down, Howard said, as the Homeland Security agency is unable to reimburse the auxiliary for expenditures such as boat fuel costs incurred during operations. While less active during the winter months, Howard said the auxiliary plays a major role in Coast Guard operations, assisting with training exercises, search-and-rescue operations, and creating a “positive presence” on the water.

There are 42 local auxiliary members, according to Flotilla 31-5 Cmdr. Carol Bordua.

The auxiliary was also ordered off duty in early 2018 amid a federal shutdown over immigration policy funding.

The federal shutdown is primarily a concern for junior Coast Guard members, Howard explained. There are around 10 junior members at the Grand Haven field office, and more across the street at Station Grand Haven. While the Coast Guard recommends saving up six months’ worth of living expenses, Howard said, junior members have not been in the service long enough to plan that far ahead.

Coast Guard members at a small boat station are not provided food and housing, Howard said, and going without pay would mean difficulty affording food and paying rent. The workforce is widely dispersed in West Michigan, he added, and there is no government housing available.

Mike Smith, executive director of the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, said community members have asked how they can help Coast Guard members during the shutdown.

“I am blown away by the number of people in the community in Coast Guard City, USA, that have called me, stopped me on the street, texted me and emailed me to see if they could help,” he said.

The Coast Guard Festival helps provide gift cards and other help throughout the year, Smith said. Gift cards and meals are provided when members have babies or move to the area. Over Christmas, the festival and local business partners helped provide a holiday dinner and presents for children of the service families.

“In this particular year, it made a more significant impact because of what’s happening nationally,” Smith said. “Decisions in Washington are affecting people on Washington Avenue.”

Funding expired after Dec. 21 for Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The U.S. Postal Service has continued to operate and Social Security checks are being sent out. Medicare and Medicaid coverage are not affected.

In Michigan, volunteers are keeping the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore accessible as National Parks Service employees are not working, and National Wildlife refuges may have limited access during the shutdown. Native American tribes are missing out on federal dollars that fund services such as health clinics and food assistance. 

Democrats vowed Thursday to pass funding bills to reopen the government, while President Trump accused the party of using the shutdown for political leverage in the 2020 presidential election.

The current federal government shutdown is the third under the Trump presidency. Conflict over immigration policy led to a three-day shutdown in January 2018 and a nine-hour shutdown in February.

A shutdown in 2013 under President Obama lasted 16 days amid disagreement over the Affordable Care Act. The longest shutdown in U.S. history lasted 21 days in 1995-96 under President Bill Clinton.

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