Trade Gets Sluggish As The Shutdown Leaves Agencies Shortstaffed

The government shutdown is starting to hamper trade. More than 40 federal agencies involved in trade shipments — from the EPA to the Commerce Department — have trimmed their staffs, resulting in a slowdown or halt of goods.

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The shutdown is having an increasingly serious impact on the country's ability to import and export goods. Furloughs at many federal agencies have led to delays in processing forms, carrying out inspections and getting products through Customs.

As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the backlogs are expected to get worse the longer the shutdown goes on.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Officials with Customs and Border Patrol, having been deemed essential, have remained on duty during the shutdown. But there are more than three dozen other federal agencies that inspect, process or clear goods at the country's ports and borders. And many of those officials have been furloughed.

Take the Environmental Protection Agency, which is down to just 10 percent of its workers. The EPA has stopped clearing pesticides for import. Charles Franklin, an environmental lawyer at Akin Gump, and a former federal regulator at the EPA, says this will hurt businesses.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: This is going to be an impact on the chemical industry, first and foremost. But, of course, without those products, that has a cascading impact on all of the other industries. So it has the potential to be a very broad impact.

NORTHAM: Other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, also play a role in helping move products that touch every part of our lives - whether it be food or clothes, medicine or automobiles.

Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the shutdown is preventing or severely delaying the movement of goods.

GARY HUFBAUER: The result is that exports intended for foreign markets are piling up in the warehouses, and likewise for imports. You know, you just stop the shipments. Tell the ships, we don't know when you're going to be able to unload. Of course, it's going to cost some ship owner 10,000 a day or 20,000 a day. It's pretty expensive to bunker these ships.

NORTHAM: Hufbauer says trade is incredibly important and makes up about one-quarter of America's more than $15 trillion economy. He says imports and exports were a strong component of an otherwise lackluster economy over the past few years. This is not lost on those involved in international trade.

MARIANNE ROWDEN: It's panic. It's panic for them.

NORTHAM: Marianne Rowden, the president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, says her members are extremely concerned about the impact of the shutdown. She says in the short term, it's costing a lot of money. In the long term, Rowden says if the budget crisis drags on, there's a fear foreign customers will see the U.S. as an unreliable supplier.

ROWDEN: These companies have competition from China, Europe, all other countries. And the buyers in those other countries will say, you know what, if you can't deliver, we're going to another supplier.

NORTHAM: Rowden says the U.S. economy is much more exposed to global trade than it was during the last government shutdown, in 1995.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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