Michigan lawmakers push relief bills to help workers during shutdown

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Frustrated by the partial government shutdown, rank-and-file Michigan lawmakers are introducing legislation meant to reduce its burden on families of federal workers going without pay.

A bill to pay the Coast Guard has gathered bipartisan support in Congress, as well as legislation to allow affected federal employees to withdraw money from their retirement accounts without penalty.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said Monday her idea for the latter legislation was inspired by a furloughed air safety specialist in Livingston County who flagged the need for such relief. 

"He said you could change legislation that allowed us to borrow against (our retirement) without paying a tax penalty. I said that sounds totally right, totally logical," Slotkin said. 

Currently, federal workers may only withdraw funds from their 401(k) retirement savings plan (known as the Thrift Savings Plan) by taking out a loan or demonstrating a financial hardship — a step that incurs a 10-percent penalty for early withdrawal, the freshman lawmaker said. 

She learned Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, had the same idea, and signed onto her Shutdown Relief Act. It would permit federal workers to withdraw money from their Thrift Savings Plan without penalty up to the amount of their missed pay, given the funds are paid back within 180 days of the shutdown ending.

"The fact that the federal workers are literally being held hostage between the two parties is really wrong-headed, and I do think we need to be in a room negotiating. But the first step is opening the government," said Slotkin, who flipped a Republican-held district won by President Donald Trump in 2016.

"What would be great to see in a final deal is legislation that ends shutdowns. No party should be able, on either side of the aisle, to shut down the government when they don’t get whatever want."

Negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats have stalled over funding for his long-promised border wall, extending what is the longest government shutdown in history into its fifth week. 

The impasse has shuttered nine federal departments, roughly a fourth of the government, affecting roughly 5,200 civilian federal employees in Michigan who are furloughed or working without pay. 

An estimated 1,000 Coast Guard employees in Michigan are also working without pay and could miss their second paycheck next week if the impasse isn't broken. 

Pay for other uniformed services has not been affected by the shutdown because they fall under the Department of Defense, whose budget is funded through Sept. 30.

In the Great Lakes region, the Coast Guard employs about 2,600, of which 2,000 are active-duty staff expected to report to work during the shutdown. Some of the Coast Guard's civilian employees are furloughed, while others are working without pay. 

A few bills in Congress would authorize pay for the Coast Guard, its civilian employees and contractors during the shutdown. Co-sponsors include Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland; John Moolenaar, R-Midland; and Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, as well as Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, Slotkin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

Bergman, a retired Marine lieutenant general, noted that similar legislation has passed during prior shutdowns to ensure that military branches under the Department of Defense received funding.

His district is home to two Coast Guard bases: Sector Sault Sainte Marie and Air Station Traverse City.

"There is absolutely no reason that the men and women of the Coast Guard, who protect our waters and many of our borders as well as break ice and perform rescue operations, should ever have to question if they will receive their pay," Bergman said through a spokesman.

Another bill introduced by Rep. TJ Cox, D-California, would offer zero-interest loans of up to $6,000 to the 800,000 affected employees nationwide. Tlaib, Dingell and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, are co-sponsors. 

Moolenaar, a member of the Appropriations Committee, supports legislation that would provide pay for all federal workers deemed "essential" and thus exempted from furlough — meaning they have continued to work without pay during the shutdown, which started Dec. 22.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked the U.S. Department of Labor for "flexibility" in federal rules that prevent states from providing unemployment benefits to these federal employees working without pay. 

Trump last week signed a bill that would give back pay to federal workers after the shutdown ends. 

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, was among seven lawmakers to vote against that legislation, in part because it went beyond approving back pay for the current shutdown to green light back pay for future shutdowns.

"This is bad policy. It makes shutdowns more likely to happen and more likely to last longer," Amash said in a series of tweets. 

"People will really recognize the problem when it plays out some day. If pay is guaranteed in future shutdowns, then furloughed workers should come to work and be paid on time. Under this bill, they are kept home and paid later." 

Bergman recently co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Ralph Norman, R-South Carolina, to prohibit members of Congress from receiving pay during a shutdown. Huizenga has also co-sponsored the measure. 

"As I’ve said before, if Congress can’t perform our most basic task and federal workers are not receiving their pay, we shouldn’t either," Bergman said.

The measure would require a constitutional amendment, which would go to the states for approval if it passes both chambers of Congress.  

Bergman and Slotkin are donating their salary during the shutdown to charities, with Slotkin's pay going to the Alzheimer Association of Michigan. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, has asked his pay be withheld until a funding agreement has taken effect.