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As Partial Shutdown Drags On, Negative Impact Expected To Increase


We are in Day 7 of the partial federal government shutdown, and there's no end in sight. President Trump wants Congress to approve billions of dollars for a border wall. Democrats, who are set to take control of the House next week, say no. So far the effects of this shutdown have been relatively muted. Many people are taking time off for the holidays. But the fallout could grow if the shutdown stretches well into the new year, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The two weeks around Christmas are some of the busiest at Joshua Tree National Park in California, when rock climbers and car campers flock to the high desert getaway. The cactus and the campers are still there this week, but the Rangers who would ordinarily patrol the park have been sent packing by the government shutdown.

JOHN LAURETIG: The visitor centers are closed. All the bathrooms are still open, but they're not being maintained right now by the Park Service, so the local community has rallied together and started cleaning the bathrooms and restocking the toilet paper.

HORSLEY: John Lauretig runs a nonprofit group called Friends of Joshua Tree National Park. He says those friends are grateful access to the park has not been cut off. But with the government shutdown approaching its second weekend and no sign of compromise on the horizon, Lauretig and others are digging in for what could be a long-term project.

LAURETIG: So as the dumpsters fill up and the pit toilets fill up, you know, what kind of solutions can we make to solve those problems?

HORSLEY: So far, the shutdown affecting about a quarter of the federal government has been little more than an inconvenience to some and invisible to many. Critical federal employees have stayed on the job. And while they're not being paid at the moment, that won't really show up until their next paychecks are due, January 11. Still, Jacqueline Simon, who's with the largest union of federal workers, says the longer the shutdown drags on, the more widely its effects will be felt.

JACQUELINE SIMON: There were a few agencies that are affected by the funding lapse that had a little bit of money left over to take them to the end of the year, but that money will be running out today, Monday. And so more things will be shutting down.

HORSLEY: The EPA, for example, has announced plans to halt operations at midnight tonight. The Smithsonian museum and the National Zoo will shutter their doors next week. Food stamps and the school lunch program are funded through January but could take a hit after that if the shutdown continues. White House economist Kevin Hassett says the shutdown should not do lasting damage to the U.S. economy, but he admits it could cause a blip in the unemployment rate if hundreds of thousands of federal workers are still idle in a couple of weeks.

KEVIN HASSETT: If the shutdown extended through the job survey week, about January 10, then the government workers who are not reporting to work would show up in the unemployment statistics as well. But that would be more of a temporary thing. It's not something that we expect is really material for the outlook.

HORSLEY: Social Security and Medicare payments are still being made as usual, but applications for FHA-backed mortgages could be delayed. FEMA briefly rattled the housing market when the agency said it would stop selling flood insurance policies during the shutdown. Allan Dechert, who heads the insurance committee for the National Association of Realtors, says that could jeopardize as many as 40,000 home sales each month.

ALLAN DECHERT: If they're getting a mortgage, they got to have flood insurance. And if they can't get the flood insurance, they're not able to get the mortgage. You know, the bank requires it. So it definitely can affect things.

HORSLEY: Under pressure, FEMA backtracked late Friday and said it would resume selling flood insurance. For now, volunteers will keep scrubbing toilets at Joshua Tree National Park. But John Lauretig says that's no substitute for the park rangers who ordinarily keep an eye on the Native American rock art and other history dotting the desert landscape.

LAURETIG: There are rare and unique artifacts up there that need to be protected by a fully staffed National Park Service staff. And my concern is right now that those artifacts and those one-of-a-kind kind of things in the park are unprotected, unfortunately.

HORSLEY: That park protection, like much of what the federal government does, usually attracts little attention until it's gone. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.