A view to Sharp Top Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Peaks of Otter. A federal government shutdown could halt visitor services at National Park Service sites and result in the complete closure of NPS sites. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

With the countdown to a federal government shutdown underway amid largely stalled budget negotiations on Capitol Hill, Virginia is bracing for the disruptive impact that a prolonged lapse of the funding of many federal services would have on families and businesses in the commonwealth. 

The federal Office of Management and Budget has already begun the process of advising agencies which employees it may have to furlough ahead of a looming deadline Saturday at midnight. 

The government would cease many operations by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, unless congressional Republicans pass a government spending package that is signed by President Joe Biden before then — which is becoming increasingly unlikely. 

The effects of what would be the 22nd shutdown in the past 50 years on national agencies and contractors in Virginia would be far-reaching. 

For example, a shutdown could halt visitor services at Virginia’s National Park Service sites, and could result in the complete closure of NPS sites. 

Virginia is home to 22 national parks, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and Shenandoah National Park. Many small communities around Virginia have economies centered around park tourism.

There are more than 25,000 federal workers in Virginia’s 5th, 6th, and 9th congressional districts, who may be furloughed or expected to work throughout the shutdown but not receive payment until the government reopens, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.

During the 2018-2019 shutdown — which caused about 380,000 furloughs — Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, objected to the Senate going out of session, which resulted in him securing passage of legislation to guarantee back pay for federal employees for that and all future shutdowns.

But private federal contractors play by different rules. Government contractors and subcontractors are impacted by shutdowns because federal agencies are not able to award or modify government contracts, and companies with government contracts could be told to stop work from agencies that run out of funding for the year. This could result in federal contractors’ pay and benefits being delayed or suspended, or they could be furloughed.

Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies Inc., a federal contractor with about 2,000 employees in Virginia, as well as other contractors such as Entwistle Company in Danville, could be among those impacted by a shutdown.

“Like other contractors, we are closely monitoring the budget situation and consulting with our customers in terms of possible impacts,” BWXT spokesman Jud Simmons said in an email Friday, adding that the company has approximately 2,000 employees in Virginia, and thousands more around the country, working on programs for a variety of federal agencies.

“Given that federal appropriations negotiations are ongoing, it would be premature for us to comment or speculate on specific impacts at our facilities in Virginia or elsewhere,” Simmons said. “If there were to be an impact, we would keep our employees informed about the situation and would work with our customers to ensure that our facilities remained in a safe and secure status.”

Farmers in Southwest and Southside could also face challenges, because a shutdown would furlough about 50,000 employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would affect the agency’s ability to help farmers access loans.

Ben Rowe, the national affairs coordinator with the Virginia Farm Bureau, said that the impact on farmers would be “significant” as they work to grow the food Virginia families rely on. 

“Farmers would not be able to take out USDA loans, including mortgage and crop loans, which help farmers hedge their current crops and pay for expenses to grow next year’s crops,” Rowe said. “A shutdown would halt new signups for several conservation programs, and impact the publication of data that farmers rely on to buy and sell what they grow.”

The federal budget and the farm bill are both set to expire on Sept. 30, Rowe added. 

“Unfortunately, delays in the federal appropriations process for FY 2024 and the risk of government shutdown threaten timely passage of the 2023 farm bill. We urge Congress to find a bipartisan path forward that avoids a government shutdown, addresses FY 2024 government funding, and moves to consider the farm bill without additional delay.”

Because states receive federal grants on a monthly basis to administer the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more than 20,000 people in Southwest and Southside Virginia who rely on the program for their nutrition could be affected by a shutdown as well.

The USDA’s ability to send out Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits could also be impacted, because the agency is only able to send out benefits for 30 days after a shutdown begins. SNAP provides food benefits to low-income families to supplement their grocery budget so they can afford the nutritious food essential to a healthy diet.

Grocery stores across the commonwealth also would be unable to renew Electronic Benefit Transfer card licenses during a shutdown – any store whose license expires during a shutdown would not be able to accept SNAP benefits. According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, over 178,000 Virginians in Southwest and Southside Virginia received SNAP benefits in August 2023.

Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators — Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner — warn of the potentially dire consequences for the commonwealth in the coming days, weeks or months. 

“Government shutdowns inflict senseless pain on federal employees, government contractors, and millions of Americans who rely on government services, from food and air travel safety to assistance troubleshooting Medicare and Social Security issues,” the senators said in a joint email. 

Southwest and Southside Virginia are no exception, Warner and Kaine said. “The closure of our beautiful parks — including Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — during peak season, mandatory leaves of absence for federal workers and contractors, and fewer resources for farmers during harvest season are among the many ways a shutdown would hurt the region’s economy.”

And although Warner and Kaine have vowed to “continue to do everything we can to reach a bipartisan solution,” GOP hardliners in the House of Representatives demand a measure would cut spending to a 2022 level of $1.47 trillion on an annualized basis, impose immigration and border security restrictions, and establish a bipartisan commission to study the U.S. debt.

“The days of reckless, excessive spending without consequence are over,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday. 

Good, who is a member of the budget committee and of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he would not support a bipartisan measure proposed by the Senate that would fund the government until Nov. 17 as longer-term negotiations continue, while also providing $6 billion for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief.

“The Senate plan is a plan to perpetuate the suffering of the American people,” Good said in the interview. “We’re on track this year for a $2.2 trillion deficit to further stick it to the American people, now that we’ve reached $33 trillion in national debt. We’re not going to perpetuate that harm in the House, we’re not going to vote for that terrible deal for the American people that simply extends the policies that are destroying the country and under which the American people are suffering.”

However, later on Thursday Good signaled in an email to Cardinal News that he was open to a temporary solution. 

“While I am advocating for no longer than a 15-day temporary spending agreement, I would support a 30-day stopgap that cuts spending to pre-covid levels and includes real border security,” Good said. 

He added that this was conditional on Speaker Kevin McCarthy “simultaneously leading the Republican conference towards passing all remaining appropriations bills with $64 billion in cuts from the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act spending caps, during the stopgap period.”

McCarthy’s proposal, which would have kept the government open for 30 days and during that time period would have imposed drastic cuts to government programs, was defeated by a group of hard right Republicans in the House.

Good ended up voting in favor of the Spending Reduction and Border Security Act Friday, and he was joined by his colleagues Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County. 

Cline did not respond to an email seeking comment, but Griffith said in an email that while he backed McCarthy’s proposal, he wouldn’t support the Senate measure. “The Senate proposal isn’t germane,” he said. 

If the government does shut down Sunday, some core federal services, however, will not be impacted. 

For example, the U.S. Postal Service does not cease operations during any federal lapse in appropriations, because it is funded through a permanent no-year appropriation, according to its 2024 fiscal year shutdown plan. And the about 500,000 Postal Service employees are exempt from furloughs because the Postal Service is self-funded.

And although some of the Social Security Administration’s employees would be furloughed, Social Security recipients will continue to receive payments because Congress has approved these programs to spend without an expiration date — which is known as mandatory spending. 

Just a few of the agency’s services, such as the verification of benefits, or corrections and updates to earnings records, would be temporarily suspended.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.