Post Shutdown, Many Reassessing Government's Role
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Well, it's finally over for now. This is President Obama speaking earlier today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, last night, I signed legislation to reopen our government and pay America's bills because Democrats and responsible Republicans came together. The first government shutdown in 17 years is now over.
MARTIN: In a few minutes, we'll hear about how federal workers are reacting to being back at work after the 16 day shutdown. But first, we thought we'd get beyond the capital and hear a bit about how the whole episode was perceived and experienced by people in all walks of life from around the country. So we've called on three news editors. Dana Coffield is the city editor of the Denver Post. Christopher Ave is political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Michael Smolens is the government editor at U-T San Diego, formerly known as the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER AVE: Thank you, Michel.
DANA COFFIELD: Thanks for having us.
MICHAEL SMOLENS: Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, we're still in the first day of the reopening of the government. But I wanted to ask each of you has this been a major story where you are, and if so, what part of the story has gotten people's attentions? So, Christopher Ave, I'll start with you in St. Louis, and I'll work my way West.
AVE: Well, it has been a huge story here in the St. Louis area. I think, predominantly, it's been a huge story for those personally affected. I think the polls say about a third of the population feels personally affected or felt personally affected by the shutdown, and that's played out in St. Louis. We talked to a retired - recently retired Army sergeant who had left the service, was going home to help take care of some grandkids, and she was waiting for her first pension check. It didn't come. We met her at a food pantry.
So people who are directly affected, it is the only story - has been the only story. But then, when you get out from that, and you get to people who really aren't directly affected yet, we're finding that their reactions largely depend on their political persuasion. I mean, St. Louis City is very democratic - a lot of frustration at how could the Congress mess this up. But then you get out state, and it's incredibly conservative in much of Missouri. And lots of folks feel like, you know what, the government spends way too much money. They don't need to borrow more. Something needs to be done. So it really depends on where you sit.
MARTIN: I was going to ask about that, whether there was a divide among - how the divide worked out. And you're saying it's not so much affected directly, not affected directly. It's more how you feel about the issue to begin with...
AVE: Well, I think...
MARTIN: ...More the politics of the situation.
AVE: Just a little subtlety, regardless of your politics, if your paycheck has been interrupted, then you are in - many, at least, are in crisis. So those folks definitely need it to end, regardless of politics. But beyond that, when you get to those folks who aren't personally affected, it really depends on their point of view.
MARTIN: Dana Coffield, what about Colorado?
COFFIELD: Well, we are in sort of a unique situation here where we do have a huge number of federal employees who were furloughed during the government shutdown, including in Colorado Springs, which is the highest density of federal workers in the United States. Fortunately, most of them are active-duty military, so they kept being paid. But we also have a large number of federal labs, all the way up the Front Range in Colorado, where people had to shut down experiments. We had two of our Nobel Prize winners in physics discontinuing their research during this period. So it's a little bit more abstract for us in some ways.
But the big deal thing was that at the same time that we're dealing with government partial shutdown, we had a tremendous natural disaster here, in which basically, if you were to divide the state of Colorado into four parts and lop off the upper right-hand corner, all of that was underwater starting about September 11. So we've been in a bit of a panic about whether federal aid was going to continue to flow to get our economy back on track. We logged probably between 300 and $500 million in highway and road damage in that area. It was preventing our tourism, our general commutes. We had problems with our farmers in northeastern Colorado being able to bring their crops in. So one of the good news parts of the order signed last night is that $350 million for highway recovery money, 350 million will make its way into Colorado, so we continue on this work before the hard winter weather hits.
MARTIN: Well, you know, given that, in fact, the national parks have gotten a lot of attention around the country because people from all over the world come to see them and were not able to, and that has of course a knock-on effect for all the people whose livelihoods depend on that. But you're telling me that - I would think that Rocky Mountain National Park was affected by the flooding anyway. I think, what, two of the entrances...
MARTIN: ...To the park were affected by the floods anyways.
COFFIELD: Sort of.
MARTIN: I guess the question I have, Dana, is do people see the effects of the state, do they see it as being a natural disaster, the weather, or do they see the government shutdown as its own disaster?
COFFIELD: It's two separate things. And in the case of Estes Park, which is the town that's the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, three of four entrances to that town were swept away by floodwaters and the fourth entrance goes through Rocky Mountain National Park. Our highway department was able to repair one of the roads. So they had one kind of cruddy road into town. But when the park shut down, the second entrance to that city closed down. And this is the time of year when people are heavily using that park for leaf peeping and watching our uniquely Colorado thing of elk bugling. And people were just not able to get there. So there was already horrible economic impact because of the natural disaster and an added level of stress in that community as a result of the shutdown.
MARTIN: We've been talking about the effects of the government shutdown in a number of cities. I'm joined by Dana Coffield of the Denver Post, that's who was speaking just now. Christopher Ave of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is also with us. Michael Smolens of U-T San Diego, let's hear from you. You know, I think a lot of people know that you're in San Diego and a lot of people know that there's a large military population there, many of whom - I think most of the active-duty military stayed on the job, the civilians did not - or some in support of those operations stayed on the job. So how is the effect - how is it being felt there, how is it being talked about there?
SMOLENS: Well, it's being talked about a lot like it is in the other cities - my colleagues there and across the country. You're correct - that the active-duty military, you know, in the Navy and Marines, were on duty and being paid. But we have a lot of civilian military folks. And fortunately, a week into the shutdown the government ordered them back to work. So we sort of had a gradual effect. But we still have thousands and thousands of federal workers from, you know, the IRS and other agencies that are just getting back to work today. And what we have felt was that the economic spinoff wasn't just the people who weren't getting paychecks, but even those that were back at work were holding back on spending, and local businesses who rely on a lot of these folks really are feeling the pinch.
And, you know, looking forward - I know across the nation but certainly in San Diego - they're very concerned about the holiday season because it's not over. As we know, there's another showdown looming in January and people are going to be going into the holiday season, I think, holding back on spending and that's going to have a ripple effect. I mean, it was very interesting, one fellow from the IRS that is going back to work today, you know, he told us he felt like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." That, you know, you had the sequestration threat and concerns earlier this year, the shutdown and, you know, now another potential shutdown or showdown, and even more sequestration cuts that are kind of floating under the radar with all this talk about the shutdown. So it's had that effect. You know, we also had our Washington Monument syndrome.
Out here the Cabrillo National Monument, which is a gorgeous monument, up way high on a peninsula where you can see the ocean, San Diego Bay and into Mexico, it gets a million visitors a year. And that was sort of the iconic, you know, image of the gates being closed there. So it was felt all over the place. But even in small ways, we just had a story today, it affected Meals on Wheels. About 250 military people volunteer for Meals on Wheels, but they were told they couldn't do, basically, any extracurricular activity because they were needed to backfill for those civilians that weren't called back to duty. So there was a mini crisis in getting the old folks those meals.
MARTIN: Wow. I also understand that there was a huge loss of revenue because there was a last-minute cancellation of the air show there this month.
SMOLENS: Well, yes. And that was, you know, we talked about iconic things in San Diego, that's an annual big events, a big draw, but it's a financial situation whereas each year it brings in about $1.6 million at the Miramar Marine Naval Air Station - excuse me the Miramar Marine Air Station - and that money goes to this base fund that helps out with community programs there for families, for healthcare, childcare, suicide prevention. Not only did that fund not get the $1.6 million they usually make off this show, but because of the last-minute cancellation the day before the show was supposed to start, they're going to end up having - that fund is going to end up having to pay about $700,000 to contractors.
So it's a real hit. That's about 15 percent of that fund. So, you know, talk about feeling it directly. And, you know, these are military families and so there's that frustration there. But on the flipside, they're moving forward. If anybody can make do, it's the military and Marine families.
MARTIN: I can imagine. Well, you can do a "hoorah" for us later, later today. I'm going to ask all of you to stick around and tell us a little bit more about some of the less tangible effects of this, which is, like, questions of morale. You know, how this is affecting people's feelings about government service, how it's affecting their feelings about the work that they do themselves. And I know that's a little bit hard to kind of get your hands around at times, but, Christopher, I'll start with you and then we're going to take a short break in a minute. Did you have any sense that this caused people to think about what role the government actually plays in their lives in a way that they perhaps had not done before?
AVE: I think so. I think you're on to something there, Michel. The people who were directly affected or who knew someone who was directly affected, you know, they are now faced with tangible evidence that the government does matter. That this is - this entity in Washington is something that affects day-to-day hour-to-hour decisions. And then stepping further back than that, what I find interesting, and I don't have a neat answer for this, but what I would like to know is these people who are leaving childhood and entering adulthood, they're still at a malleable age.
They're forming their views on government, on democracy, on patriotism related issues. They really haven't seen a Congress that works very well. Now for a long time. And I wonder what the implications of that will be on their future, you know, their willingness to get into government public service. Their willingness to participate in the democracy. Our democracy isn't working very well. And I think that that's something that is going to have some ramifications down the line.
MARTIN: I'm going to ask our panel of regional editors to please stay with us. We hope you'll stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.