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Just days before Christmas, federal employees in Maryland could be furloughed or have to work without pay

For the second time this year alone, some of the 300,000 Marylanders who work for the federal government could be furloughed or have to work without pay if Congress and the president cannot agree on funding for agencies from the IRS to Customs and Border Protection to the National Park Service.

Congress has left Washington until Wednesday, two days before funds will lapse for the FDA and NASA, which have substantial footprints in Maryland, and other agencies, even as President Trump has said he would be “proud” for the government to shut down if he doesn’t get $5 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

Not all federal employees in Maryland and elsewhere would be left without a paycheck during the holiday season, because previously passed measures have funded roughly 75 percent of the government, including the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs. The largest group of federal workers in Maryland, some 11,000 employees of the Social Security Administration, which is headquartered in Woodlawn, would not be affected by a shutdown, according to a union official.

But thousands of others work at agencies that would be part of a shutdown: scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, as well as park rangers at Fort McHenry, food inspectors at the FDA and customs and border agents at the Port of Baltimore. They could be furloughed or continue working if deemed essential, but either way they would not be paid until the shutdown ended.

“This is a lot of political blustering, Kabuki theater,” said Anel Flores, a mission systems engineer at Goddard, the sprawling NASA facility in Greenbelt. “And we’ll pay the price for it.”

By one estimate, more than 380,000 workers nationwide would be furloughed, and more than 420,000 would work without pay.

On Friday, Flores and other members of his team underwent one of multiple reviews required for a planetary mission that they’re proposing. He can’t say more about it — there are other projects competing for the same hundreds of millions of dollars of funding — but a shutdown would interrupt a complicated, year-long proposal process that has to be submitted by May.

Flores also heads a union, the Goddard Engineers, Scientists and Technicians Association, which represents about 1,700 of the 3,000 employees at the space center. The union is part of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents more than 80,000 employees in both the public and private sectors in the U.S. and Canada.

Now in his 36th year with NASA, Flores has been through multiple government shutdowns — including one during the Clinton administration that temporarily grounded three rockets he was preparing to launch from a base in Alaska. He remembers the scramble to keep the rockets warm and the payload secure, and is not looking forward to yet another shutdown.

Even though Congress generally authorizes back pay after a shutdown ends, that is not guaranteed, and it can take several weeks before employees receive it, Flores said.

Like other agencies, NASA officials said they were still evaluating the impact of their funding lapsing after Friday.

“In previous shutdowns, we have maintained personnel to support the International Space Station and its crew, and currently operating space missions, such as satellites, landers, and rovers, to ensure they’re safe and secure,” the agency said in a statement.

At the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which operates the Hubble and the forthcoming James Webb telescopes from offices on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, a spokesman would say only that staff was “preparing for the possibility of a government shutdown as we have done in the past by following our standard procedures to minimize the impact on [the institute] and our NASA missions.”

The last time the government shut down was for three days in January, over another immigration issue, the Dreamers, young immigrants brought illegally into the country as children.

Fort McHenry, part of the National Park Service, shut its gates to visitors then. This time, superintendent Tina Cappetta said she had not yet received guidance on what the park would do.

Senate Democrats estimate that 80 percent of the park service’s 16,000 staff members nationwide would be furloughed. Cappetta, also the superintendent of the Hampton mansion in Towson, said the two historic sites have about 30 employees in all this time of the year.

The park service’s contingency plan calls for sites to discontinue visitor services, such as restrooms, trash collection, educational programs and road and walkway maintenance.

Much remains uncertain about what might happen between now and Friday. Several federal workplaces in the state as well as their employees said either they were not authorized to speak about it or were wary of getting involved in a heated political battle between Trump and Congress.

The potential shutdown comes at a particularly fraught time, with the midterm elections changing control of the House from Republican to Democratic, the Senate remaining Republican and Trump in a maelstrom of investigations — particularly by Robert S. Mueller III, whose special counsel’s office would be unaffected by a shutdown because its funding does not go through the congressional appropriations process.

Trump’s insistence on funding for a border wall as part of the spending package has for now thrown a wrench into any agreement. In a televised meeting with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, slated to become Speaker, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, on Tuesday, he took ownership of a potential shutdown, saying he would willingly do it in the name of border security.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican in the Maryland delegation, said he supported Trump’s demand for a wall.

“As we saw earlier this week during President Trump’s meeting which Schumer and Pelosi, Democrats have turned a blind eye to our national security,” Harris said in a statement. “They openly reject the fact that MS-13 [gang] members and violent criminals are blatantly breaking the law and crossing our border illegally every day.

“We need to make sure we have adequate funding to secure the border, and we need to see the $5 billion through in the upcoming, must-pass budget for American safety and security,” he said.

But U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip from Maryland, disputed the need for a border wall.

“Most experts believe that’s not the solution,” he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.

“We have a difference not in the core objective of securing the borders,” he said, “we have a difference of how do you do it.”

Even a partial shutdown could have an impact on Maryland, which has the fifth most federal jobs in the country — after California, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Texas — with 120,705 executive branch positions located in the state, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. (The figure excludes the postal service and intelligence agencies, and includes some legislative positions but no judiciary ones.)

A limited shutdown would still be “disruptive and chaotic … for federal employees and the taxpayers they serve,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Reardon, whose union has expanded over the years to include more than treasury workers, said Maryland has more than 6,000 FDA employees, 400 at IRS offices and 100 at Customs and Border Protection sites.

“The people of Maryland will acutely feel the effects of this shutdown, if it happens,” Reardon said.

“In addition to the personal toll the shutdown takes on federal employees, the taxpayers of Maryland and the entire country will have to go without some services,” he said. “The FDA, for example, would no longer be able to support routine regulatory and compliance activities, including inspecting food and drug manufacturing facilities.”

Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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