A Shutdown Won't Affect Airport, Border Security

If Congress fails to come up with a spending bill to keep the federal government operating next week, and a shutdown occurs, the TSA airport screeners will keep working. Also reporting to work will be the people who secure the nation's borders.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now, one thing about the 1995 government shutdown, it occurred before the Department of Homeland Security was created. Officials say even if there is a budget impasse, the main operations carried out by Homeland Security won't be affected, and that includes airport screening.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: As Congress and the White House inch closer to a government shutdown neither side says it wants, airline passengers can rest easy. Those sometimes-beleaguered security screeners are not among the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who will be given some unscheduled time off. Those workers are essential to the nation's security, says Darrell West with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Dr. DARRELL WEST (Brookings Institution): I don't think it would affect agencies like Homeland Security and TSA. Those types of agencies are so central to the security mission of the United States that the parties have to take them off the table. Otherwise, people are going to be worried about the protection of the United States, and it'll create massive discontent against that shutdown.

NAYLOR: The government has the legal authority to keep some workers on the job, even if the rest of the government is closed. Those essential workers include airport screeners, law enforcement personnel, people who issue Social Security checks, air traffic controllers, health care providers and many more. Homeland Security - with the TSA, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Secret Service within its purview - will have many essential workers who remain on the job if the rest of the government is shut down.

But the department won't escape entirely unscathed. Asa Hutchinson, who was Homeland Security's first undersecretary, says some of the agencies functions will be curtailed.

Mr. ASA HUTCHINSON (Former Undersecretary, Homeland Security): I think everyone would agree that protecting our border is a matter of national security and would continue. But the science and technology part of homeland security that helps develop better sensors and detection devices for TSA and aviation security, that would certainly, I would think, be impacted.

NAYLOR: Hutchinson says, however, a government shutdown's effects can be far-reaching, even if frontline personnel remain on the job. Hutchinson is also a former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: How about the buy money that you use for drug enforcement purposes? That's not considered essential spending, and so that type of law enforcement activity would be curtailed. So there's many unforeseen consequences.

NAYLOR: And that's the message Hutchinson, who is also a former Republican member of Congress, has been sending his former colleagues. Should a shutdown occur, though, air travel will continue, though NYU government Professor Paul Light says travelers may want to reconsider their destinations.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (Government, New York University): The only thing American travelers have to worry about is if they're going to the Grand Canyon or to a national park or a national forest, because those will all be closed. So if you're flying to the Grand Canyon, you're going to have nothing to do.

NAYLOR: And though they won't talk on the record, government officials say all essential personnel securing the nation's airports and borders will be showing up for their jobs, government shutdown or no.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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