What a shutdown would mean for student loan borrowers


(AP) — With gridlock persisting in Washington, a government shutdown is looking all but inevitable ahead of this weekend’s deadline.

While the Senate pushes forward with a bipartisan approach aimed at keeping the government open, the Republican-controlled House has made little progress — most recently with Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s last-ditch plan collapsing Friday. If spending measures aren’t passed by Saturday night, millions of federal employees will be furloughed and many others will be forced to work without pay until the shutdown ends.

A handful of federal safety services that people rely on every day are also in jeopardy. From dwindling funds for critical food assistance programs to potential delays in customer service for recipients of low-staffed Medicare and Social Security offices. The ripple effects would come down to how long the shutdown lasts and varying contingency plans in place at impacted agencies.

“Collectively, hundreds of millions of Americans, a majority of the population, are receiving some kind of benefits from the government,” said Forrest V. Morgeson III, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. He noted a shutdown would bring significant financial uncertainty and economic implications down the road.

Here’s what you need to know.

Will SNAP be affected by a government shutdown? What about WIC?

A government shutdown could risk millions of low-income Americans’ access to food and nutrition assistance programs — with impacts depending on how long the shutdown lasts and program-by-program contingency funds.

Nearly 7 million women and children who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could be at risk of losing assistance almost immediately into a shutdown, according to the Biden Administration. That’s because the federal contingency fund supporting normal WIC operations will likely run out in a matter of days — pushing states to rely on their own money or carryover funds.

Impacted families are “going to be going to food pantries,” said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, senior associate dean for health policy at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “These are people who need the help. These are moms. These are infants. So this is a real problem.”

Families who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could also lose assistance if a shutdown drags out for a more significant period of time. According to the Agriculture Department, regardless of what happens in Washington this weekend, households will receive SNAP assistance as usual through October.

What about Head Start programs and free school lunches?

Head Start programs serving more than 10,000 disadvantaged children would immediately lose federal funding, although they might be able to stave off immediate closure if the shutdown doesn’t last long.

Those 10 programs, which are located in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, serve just a fraction of the 820,000 children enrolled in the program at any given time.

Tommy Sheridan, the deputy director for the National Head Start Association, said the programs are in trouble because their grants start on Oct. 1. Programs with grants that don’t start on that date will continue getting money. But if the shutdown drags on, the number of affected programs will grow as more grants come up for renewal.

Beyond Head Start, concerns have also arisen around free school meals. But the Agriculture Department says it does not anticipate any immediate issues with federal child nutrition programs, including school meals because support for these programs is provided in part by a permanent and mandatory funding authority.

In the event of a government shutdown, state and federal operations for child nutrition are set to continue through October and potentially a few months beyond that, according to the department. However, the department would not be able to support these programs for the full year without appropriations.

Will I continue to receive Social Security checks?

Regardless of what happens in Washington this weekend, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income recipients will continue to receive payments. But response times for people with issues could be delayed due to furloughs.

“If you have a question about Social Security, you may not be able to find anybody to answer your questions,” Nielsen said. “But the everyday transactions of sending checks out will still continue.”

According to a recent contingency plan from the Social Security Administration, the agency will cease non-critical actions and those “not directly related to the accurate and timely payment of benefits.” The issuance of new social security cards and replacements will continue.

Would a shutdown impact Medicare and other health services?

Medicare and Medicaid benefits will also continue — as both are mandatory programs funded separately from annual appropriations. That means that patients should still be able to see their doctors and have medical bills paid.

But, similar to Social Security, there could be delays and disruptions to customer service due to furloughs. According to contingency details published by the Health and Human Services Department last week, about half of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are set to be furloughed in the event of a lapse of appropriations.

Beyond Medicare and Medicaid, healthcare services for veterans are set to continue in the event of a shutdown. The majority of programs funded by the Indian Health Service would also remain in operation and IHS has received advanced appropriations for the 2024 fiscal year, per a recent contingency plan.

How could flights and other travel be impacted?

The nation’s air travel system is expected to operate relatively normally during a shutdown. Air traffic controllers and TSA screeners are deemed essential workers — however, those people won’t be paid until the shutdown ends, and TSA lines could grow longer if enough screeners stay home.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that air travel will remain safe in a shutdown, but that the training of new air traffic controllers will stop and 1,000 trainees will be furloughed.

Long before this week’s deadline, airlines were already been complaining that a shortage of air traffic controllers has been causing flight delays and cancellations. The Federal Aviation Administration said in August it hired 1,500 new controllers in the past year and asked Congress for money to hire another 1,800 in the new fiscal year.

The processing of passports and visas will continue in a shutdown “as the situation permits,” according to guidance that the State Department gave employees last week. The department said consulates in the U.S. and abroad will say open “as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations,” but passport work could stop if the building where the work is done gets shuttered.

The time it takes to get a passport or visa already is much longer than before the pandemic. Most Customs and Border Protection agents are also considered essential and would be expected to work at airports and border crossings.

Could there be student loan disruptions?

If spending measures aren’t passed by Saturday’s deadline, the government shutdown would start the same day that student loans emerge from the pandemic pause after beginning to accrue interest again on Sept. 1.

But, shutdown or not, borrowers’ payments will still be due. For the most part, loan servicers will be able to continue to process payments regularly — but there could be delays for those who need to consult with or seek help from the Education Department due to the potential of agency furloughs.

Students applying for federal aid during a shutdown can expect similar delays because of this. Officials have pointed to potential disruptions to processing FAFSA applications, disbursing Pell Grants, and pursuing public loan forgiveness, for example.

Would mail services slow down?

The United States Postal Service will not be affected by a government shutdown. The Postal Service doesn’t rely on taxpayer dollars because it generally gets its funding through the sales of products and services.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s last-ditch plan to keep the federal government temporarily open collapsed in dramatic fashion Friday as a robust faction of hard-right holdouts rejected the package, making a shutdown almost certain.

McCarthy’s right-flank Republicans refused to support the bill despite its steep spending cuts of nearly 30% to many agencies and severe border security provisions, calling it insufficient.

The White House and Democrats rejected the Republican approach as too extreme. The vote was 198-232, with 21 hard-right Republicans voting to sink the package. The Democrats voted against it.

The bill’s complete failure a day before Saturday’s deadline to fund the government leaves few options to prevent a shutdown that will furlough federal workers, keep the military working without pay and disrupt programs and services for millions of Americans.

A clearly agitated McCarthy left the House chamber. “It’s not the end yet; I’ve got other ideas,” he told reporters.

The outcome puts McCarthy’s speakership in serious jeopardy with almost no political leverage to lead the House at a critical moment that has pushed the government into crisis. Even the failed plan, an extraordinary concession to immediately slash spending by one-third for many agencies, was not enough to satisfy the hard-right flank that has upturned his speakership.

The Senate pushed ahead Friday with its own plan favored by Republicans and Democrats to keep the government open while also bolstering Ukraine aid and U.S. disaster accounts. But that won’t matter with the House in political chaos.

The White House has brushed aside McCarthy’s overtures to meet with President Joe Biden after the speaker walked away from the debt deal they brokered earlier this year that set budget levels.

“Extreme House Republicans are now tripling down on their demands to eviscerate programs millions of hardworking families count on,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Jean-Pierre said, “The path forward to fund the government has been laid out by the Senate with bipartisan support — House Republicans just need to take it.”

Catering to his hard-right flank, McCarthy had returned to the spending limits the conservatives demanded back in January as part of the deal-making to help him become the House speaker.

His package would not have cut the Defense, Veterans, or Homeland Security departments but would have slashed almost all other agencies by up to 30% — steep hits to a vast array of programs, services, and departments Americans routinely depend on.

It also added strict new border security provisions that would kickstart building the wall at the southern border with Mexico, among other measures. Additionally, the package would have set up a bipartisan debt commission to address the nation’s mounting debt load.

Ahead of voting, the Republican speaker all but dared his holdout colleagues to oppose the package a day before Saturday’s almost certain shutdown. The House bill would have kept operations open through Oct. 31.

“Every member will have to go on record where they stand,” McCarthy said.

Asked if he had the votes, McCarthy said, “We’ll see.”

But as soon as the floor debate began, McCarthy’s chief Republican critic, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, announced he would be voting against the package, urging his colleagues to “not surrender.”

The hard right, led by Gaetz, has been threatening McCarthy’s ouster, with a looming vote to try to remove him from the speaker’s office unless he meets the conservative demands. Still, it’s unclear if any other Republican would have support from the House majority to lead the party.

Gaetz said afterward that the speaker’s bill “went down in flames as I’ve told you all week it would.”

He and others rejecting the temporary measure want the House to instead keep pushing through the 12 individual spending bills needed to fund the government, typically a weeks-long process, as they pursue their conservative priorities.

Some of the Republican holdouts, including Gaetz, are allies of Donald Trump, who is Biden’s chief rival in 2024. The former president has been encouraging the Republicans to fight hard for their priorities and even to “shut it down.”

The margin of defeat shocked even Republican members.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said: “I think what this does if anything, I think it’s going to rally people around the speaker and go: ‘Hey, the dysfunction here is not coming from leadership in this case. The dysfunction is coming from individuals that don’t understand the implications of what we’re doing here.’”

Garcia said, “For the people that claim this isn’t good enough, I want to hear what good enough looks like.”

Another Republican, Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, a member of the Freedom Caucus who supported the package, suggested the House was losing its leverage with the failed vote: “We control the purse strings. We just ceded them to the Senate.”

Republicans convened for a closed-door meeting later Friday afternoon that grew heated, lawmakers said but failed to produce a new plan. Leaders announced the House would stay in session next week, rather than return home, to keep working on some of the 12 spending bills.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, criticized the proposed Republican cuts as hurting law enforcement and education and taking food out of the mouths of millions. She said 275,000 children would lose access to Head Start, making it harder for parents to work.

“This is a pointless charade with grave consequences for the American people,” DeLauro said.

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