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Fact check: Trump claims government shutdown would hurt military

President Donald Trump tweeted that a government shutdown would be "devastating" to the military, but they're largely exempt.
Image: President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the Pentagon for a meeting
President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the Pentagon for a meeting Jan. 18, 2018.Brendan Smialowsk / AFP - Getty Images

As Congress and the White House struggle to pass a spending bill, President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday morning that the consequences of a government shutdown would be "devastating" to the military. He later reiterated the claim in a visit to the Pentagon.

"If for any reason it shuts down, the worst thing is what happens to our military," Trump said before meeting with senior military leaders.

In fact, a government shutdown would likely have little impact on members of the military, especially if Congress takes action to minimize the effects as it has in the past. Some civilian employees and contractors could still feel the pinch, however.

If elected officials fail to fund the government, a partial shutdown would begin on Saturday, which would require many federal workers to be furloughed and various offices closed. But for members of the military, it would be business as usual. That's because the government exempts federal employees whose job is considered essential to national security, which includes not only the military, but border patrol agents, doctors, and TSA screeners, among others.

Trump is well aware of these exemptions. Days before the last shutdown, in 2013, he complained on Twitter that warnings that it would have a significant effect on government functions were "lies" because "all essential services continue," which seems to directly contradict his current "devastating" rhetoric.

Just because many workers are exempt doesn't mean there would be no effect from a shutdown. Members of the military would still not get paid until Congress funds the government. But Congress has also treated the military and defense workers differently during previous shutdowns, and it's possible they'd do the same thing this time.

The 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days while President Barack Obama squared off against the Republican House, which had sought to defund or delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But while members of Congress couldn't agree on how to fund the government during this period, they did reach a side deal on the military. Before the shutdown began, the president signed the Pay Our Military Act, which ensured that members of the military were paid.

Initially, about 350,000 civilian defense employees were furloughed, according to the Congressional Research Service, but the Pay Our Military Act was eventually interpreted to allow nearly all of them to return to work along with various defense contractors. Even before then, civilians whose jobs were considered important to military operations and safety were required to go to work.

The Pay Our Military Act applied only to its fiscal year, though, so Congress would have to pass a similar bill this time in order to achieve the same outcome. But the 2013 version was entirely uncontroversial: It passed without a single "no" vote in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. The bipartisan agreement flies against Trump's claim that funding the military is "something the Dems care very little about."

If they don't, it's possible the furloughed civilian employees could feel some impact. Before they were brought back in 2013, then-Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale said at a press briefing that the shutdown "seriously damaged morale" in combination with unrelated sequestration cuts and affected some training activities.

The military was also unable to pay death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers during the shutdown, which prompted widespread public outrage and was not addressed in the Pay Our Military Act. Eventually the government worked out an arrangement with a private charity, the Fisher House Foundation, to temporarily pay out the benefits and be reimbursed after the shutdown.

Undoubtedly, losing several days of work from civilian employees had some effect in 2013. But Hale's description didn't come close to describing the impact as "devastating," and the government has numerous rules in place to make sure that a shutdown does not threaten national security.

The current Pentagon comptroller, David Norquist, has used harsher language to describe a potential shutdown, telling reporters in December it would be "destructive." He offered a similar explanation of its effects on military pay and civilian employees and contractors while also warning that some weapons system maintenance would be delayed if workers were furloughed. That could create more work for them later when they return.

It seems reasonable to expect Congress would pass a new version of Pay Our Military Act again as well, which would make the overall effects less disruptive.

Trump's description of a potential shutdown was subjective, but nothing indicates it would be as severe on the military as he claimed.