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Federal employees watch helplessly as Congress passes the buck

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Government employees tighten their budgets while Congress debates the budget. Government employees tighten their budgets while Congress debates the budget.
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(RNN) – Federal employees are watching with interest as the Senate and the House of Representatives exchange competing budget bills, each calling for the other side to compromise in light of the federal government shutting down this week in disagreement over funding healthcare.

But this isn't the first time for that.

Since 2009, federal employees have watched Congress debate the budget and the debt limit. Their hours have been cut, and they have been furloughed because of sequestration.

"We've been going crisis to crisis the past few years. I thought it was wild in '95-'96, but that pales in comparison to what's going on now," said Elizabeth A. Hamann, an attorney who works for the Benefits Review Board at the Department of Labor, referring to the last time the government shut down.

The true scope of what the federal government shutting down means is only now becoming clear. The shutdown affects every department of the federal government. Nearly all NASA employees have been furloughed until further notice. Employees considered non-essential in Washington, DC, and in other cities, reported to work on Tuesday only to turn in their computers and cell phones. Others who do field work had their equipment turned off.

The 1995-1996 government closure cost the economy $1.4 billion. Bloomberg reports the shutdown will cost the U.S. economy $300 million a day. But the current standoff in Congress has been a long time coming. Congress hasn't passed an actual budget since 2009, and each funding bill since has been a stop-gap measure.

For federal employees, it has been a turbulent and uncertain time.

"We haven't had a pay raise for three years. I would be surprised if we get anything this year," Hamann said. But, she added, "As much as you're concerned for yourself, you're also concerned for the country."

An Airman serving in Europe learned Tuesday morning how the shutdown will affect his family. All school programs for his two children were canceled until further notice, and it is unclear if teachers paid by the Department of Defense could also face furloughs, which would affect the education of his children.

"Teachers haven't gone home yet," the Airman, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Raycom. "But we've not had solid assurances that we can depend on our children receiving uninterrupted education."

Another federal employee in Missouri, who asked only to be identified by his first name Edward, worried that real people with real problems are caught in the fray as Republicans and Democrats dig in their heels. With his hours being reduced to cut costs and a restriction on all overtime, he worries he won't be able to afford his rent, car payment and even groceries.

"I'm not hopeful they would move us back to 40 hours, once they put something like that in motion, they don't usually turn back," Edward said.

Most federal employees say what is most frightening about the shutdown is that no one knows how long it will last. Should Congress pass stop-gap measures or even bills that would fund certain agencies, civil servants can't relax because the government hits the debt ceiling on Oct. 17. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the government defaults on its debts. Social Security benefits will not be paid out, and the military will be affected. No temporary spending measure can help them.

"This is scary because it's self-inflicted," Hamann said. "You always think it doesn't matter rather if they're Democratic or Republican – you expect them to be Americans first."

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