Effects of the shutdown in D.C. felt in Pittsburgh

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Tim Russell, a 31-year-old Bloomfield resident, was just about ready to start selling rum.

He'd secured the necessary federal and state licensing to open Allegheny Distilling, the Strip District distillery he has spent more than two years planning. Last week, he started his first batch of what he'll call Maggie's Farm rum, predicting it will be ready to bottle by next week.

One more step remained before he could start selling. He needed to get the labeling he'll put on his bottles approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

But that final step -- and Mr. Russell's rum sales and his income -- are on hold indefinitely.

That's because the bureau, part of the Treasury Department, is included in the federal government shutdown that began Tuesday. And Mr. Russell, although not a government employee, is one of the many Americans beginning to feel the wide-ranging effects of the closures.

"It's incredibly frustrating," he said.

There is, at this point, no end in sight to the shutdown, the first closure of the federal government in 17 years.

Already more than 700,000 federal employees have been told not to report to work and the closure could mean that federal employees still working may see their paychecks delayed.

"This shutdown is unnecessary, reckless and harmful to middle-class Pennsylvanians and our economy," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a statement Wednesday.

"Pennsylvanians deserve a Congress that will work towards reasonable solutions to open the government, not wage ideological fights. A prolonged shutdown that hurts our economy is unacceptable."

Indeed, on day two, the impact of a shutdown centered in Washington, D.C., was evident throughout the Pittsburgh area, with individuals such as Mr. Russell and agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers expressing worry about what may happen if the shutdown lasts a few weeks or more.

The Army Corps, in response to the shutdown, halted its routine maintenance of locks and dams, a development that public affairs specialist Dan Jones said is "absolutely" a source of worry for the Corps' Pittsburgh office.

In the Pittsburgh pool, the Corps oversees 23 locks and dams, as well as 16 flood damage reduction reservoirs.

Officials from the Corps and river industries have long warned that failure of heavily traveled locks or dams could halt river traffic and have serious economic consequences.

Construction projects at the locks will continue if they have been funded, but any modifications to design may require them to come to a stop, Mr. Jones said.

Throughout the shutdown, the Corps will operate at a minimum staffing level. The Corps still has a responsibility to protect life and safety, so employees related to flood damage and navigation have not and will not be furloughed, he said.

Throughout the shutdown, traffic will continue moving on the rivers, but Mr. Jones said recreational boaters may notice delays in moving through locks. The Corps sent a notice Tuesday saying all its recreation areas, including the campgrounds at Youghiogheny River Lake, East Branch Lake and Tionesta Lake, are closed.

Some agencies that have sufficient funding now may find themselves doing belt-tightening if the shutdown persists.

One of those would be the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil.

A spokeswoman said Wednesday that the cemetery is open, staffing is at normal levels and internments are continuing as normal. Internments at the Pittsburgh-area cemetery, and other cemeteries run by Veterans Affairs, may be on a reduced schedule if the shutdown continues through late October.

The judiciary is funded through Oct. 15, but the shutdown began to loom over federal courts Wednesday.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers asked for a stay in a legal battle over the Affordable Care Act, writing in a motion that they "are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including 'emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.' "

The motion to stay comes in a case filed last year by Geneva College and others who sued to stop the act's requirement that they offer insurance plans covering morning after drugs and other pregnancy-stopping treatments.

The federal attorneys pledged to inform the court when funding is restored so the case can be revived.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs opposed the stay, according to the motion, which U.S. District Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti could rule on soon.

Top officials at the U.S. Courthouse in Pittsburgh also met Wednesday to plan for the possibility of a long shutdown.

Court administration in Washington, D.C., according to Clerk of Court Robert V. Barth Jr., is "telling the judges not to make any distinction between civil and criminal." Neither type of case would be fast-tracked at the expense of the other.

Similar to steps other government agencies have taken, Mr. Barth said court administration must determine which functions are "essential," and then which employees are needed to perform those functions.

He said judges would continue to be paid during the shutdown. It's unclear yet whether court security officers would be paid, or deemed essential and compelled to work without regular paychecks after Oct. 15.

There should be sufficient court staff to hold a naturalization ceremony for new citizens that is set for Oct. 18, Mr. Barth said, though first Department of Homeland Security employees will need to complete the necessary paperwork for the applicants.

As for Mr. Russell, the distillery founder, he's mostly left to wait for the government to re-open. While he waits, he can still make rum. He just can't sell it.

"I can keep working," he said. "I can keep bottling. I just can't make any money."

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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