Citing “heartbreaking stories” from Alabamians affected by an “increasingly costly federal shutdown,” U.S. Sen. Doug Jones on Thursday urged Congress to act on legislation to restart government services now and then hash out Homeland Security funding for border security after employees are back at work and getting paid.
“We need to get the government going and talk about border security in a reasonable way,” Jones, D-Alabama, said during a Thursday call with Alabama media outlets.
Alabama’s junior senator said his office has heard from many Alabamians affected by the federal shutdown.
“These are heartbreaking stories from families who are literally scared to death of losing their paychecks. These folks are not getting rich working for the government and many live paycheck to paycheck,” he said. About 5,500 federal employees are on furlough or working without pay because of the shutdown.
These employees will not be getting paid Friday, as the shutdown nears a record-breaking 22 days on Saturday.
In all, the state has about 37,900 federal employees, not counting military personnel or U.S. Postal Service workers, according to statistics compiled by Governing magazine. Only employees of still unfunded departments, including agriculture, commerce, interior, transportation and homeland security, are affected by the shutdown, which began Dec. 22.
Jones told about a federal employee whose husband is deployed in Afghanistan and who contacted his office, frantic about her family’s loss of income. “She said she supports border security, but her family depends on her paycheck,” he said.
Federal employees working without immediate prospect of pay include guards at medium security federal prisons at Talladega and Aliceville.
About 95 percent of the employees at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center are furloughed and not reporting to work. These space center employees account for about half of the state’s impacted federal employees. Jones said business owners who cater to these federal employees have also been in contact, saying the loss of business could cause layoffs or closures if the shutdown drags on
Others contacting Jones’ office concerned about the shutdown include homebuyers who lost their investments in houses they planned to purchase because their USDA loan was not accessible due to closed Department of Agriculture offices.
The debate surrounding the shutdown and President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a wall along the country’s southern border “is political and the rhetoric increasingly tribal,” Jones said. He said Congress has not been briefed on how the $5 billion would be spent and what other alternatives might be considered.
“We haven’t seen a plan, just talk with a lot of chest bumping,” Jones said. Asked about Congress’ reaction if the president declared a state of emergency or diverted military funds and personnel to build the wall, Jones said, “That’s a slippery slope. Let’s hope he doesn’t do it.”
Also Thursday, Jones was among 34 senators who signed a letter calling on federal officials to work with federal contractors to ensure their employees also received back pay for the days the federal government is shut down, according to a release from his office.
Medicaid and Civil Rights Legislation
Also during the call-in news briefing, Jones announced his introduction this week of the proposed Smart Choices Act, which would require reports on the financial impact of Medicaid expansion in states that expanded the program and states that did not, which includes Alabama. The bill, which Jones also introduced last year, would require an annual report that includes the amount of federal funding that has been passed up by states that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
By not expanding Medicaid, Jones said, Alabama left $14 billion in Medicaid funds on the table and put rural hospitals and many citizens at risk.
He also noted Trump’s signing this week of the Civil Rights Cold Case Act, sponsored by Jones and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The act requires that unsolved criminal civil rights cases be reviewed, declassified and any related government records be released.