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Military pay, typically exempted during shutdowns, is at risk

Peter Cohn, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Why is this shutdown, if one occurs, not like the others in recent history? U.S. military service members, who have to report for duty anyway because of the critical nature of their jobs, wouldn’t get paid.

During the prolonged partial government shutdowns in late 1995-early 1996, 2013 and late 2018-early 2019 — the longest in modern history at 21, 16 and 34 days, respectively — active-duty military and reservists received their salaries during the funding lapses.

That’s because the full-year Defense appropriations bill had already become law or, in the case of the October 2013 shutdown, Congress preemptively passed legislation guaranteeing military pay. With no enacted Defense bill even close, the only chance for military service members to still get their paychecks if there’s a shutdown is for lawmakers to go the 2013 route.

Technically, there’s still time. Former Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., introduced the bill on Sept. 28, 2013; it passed the House at 12:24 a.m. on the 29th. The following day, the last full day of government funding, the Senate took just a few minutes to clear the measure by unanimous consent. President Barack Obama signed it that night, just before the shutdown was set to begin.

Despite that unanimous 2013 House vote, there were plenty of Democrats who took to the floor to blast the GOP for allowing the shutdown to happen and leaving every other agency’s employees in the lurch.

“We are all going to vote for this bill,” then-House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said during brief debate. “But I will tell my friends on both sides of the aisle, it is time for us to give respect to our non-uniformed federal personnel because they are critical to the success of this country, to the success of our people.”


Coffman, who served two decades in the military before coming to Congress, was perennially endangered given his purplish district in the Denver suburbs. He lost to Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., another ex-military man, in 2018, and is now mayor of Aurora, Colorado.

This year, another vulnerable GOP incumbent is leading the charge to ensure the troops get paid on time.

Ex-Navy helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans, R-Va., who last year flipped the seat of another Navy veteran, former Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, is the lead sponsor of a bill introduced last week that mirrors the 2013 version. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks Kiggans’ seat as "Tilt Republican," a category that’s a tad safer than "Toss-up" but still among the party’s most endangered.

Her bill isn’t on this week’s floor calendar, at least for the moment. The House is already set to take up four full-year spending bills, including the Defense bill and the Homeland Security bill that funds the U.S. Coast Guard. But with backing for the rule to take up those measures always questionable — and zero chance those spending bills become law in time to avert a shutdown —there’s still a chance some floor time could emerge for bills like Kiggans’.


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