Thursday, April 7, 2011

Govt Shutdown: State Dept Making Contingency Plans But No Details Until 11:59 on Friday Night?

The State Dept press corps tried to catch the Acting Spokesman Mark C. Toner around the room the other day on what might happen in our overseas posts during the government shutdown, specifically those related to passport and visa applications.  Not much success in the catching game but the Dept is apparently making contingency plans. It's just that there are no details available for public consumption until closer to 11:59 p.m. on April 8. It's tough on the agencies but well, that still sucks! 

Visa appointments normally starts off early in the morning. Sometimes applicants travel from far away places to get to their interviews. It is conceivable that if the OMB shutdown notice does not come down until late Friday, Sat, Sunday or Monday morning (take your pick, why not?), there will be visa applicants who will be stuck somewhere without knowing when their interviews will actually occur.  And since no one knows how long the shutdown might last, it will be close to impossible to start rescheduling interviews as you cancel appointments.  That's not just tourist and student visa applicants, that also includes immigrant visa applicants who mostly have American citizens as petitioners also known as voters.

It's a good thing, you are not expected to do any representational events during the shutdown, or you may need a paper bag over your head as you greet official guests. Of course, since Congress will not be on shutdown, you might still see a CODEL in your neck of the woods. Well, them being the perpetrators of this Great Game of Chicken of 2011, they can presumably explain to the soldiers who they visit why lawmakers get paid while warriors don't get their paychecks. And they can also explain to the foreign officials that they visit why they padlocked Uncle Sam's shop.  Get your Skillcraft pens ready and take notes. Should be interesting stories there.

I expect this to be particularly messy and embarrassing overseas. For starters --    

1) Foreign governments and host country nationals will have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the most powerful country in the world, the US of A is run by juveniles who ate too much candy and are unable to do their jobs.

2) There will be a potential backlash from host country nationals who will be inconvenienced by the non-availability of interviews that they have already paid for (in prior shutdowns, they did not have to pay for their visa applications).

3) There will be Americans who will be unable to receive services overseas and will be angry and could even turn nasty.  If they threaten to report you to their senators and congressman, do please encourage them to go right ahead. If you want to be helpful, have the congressional representatives names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses available for a quick handout.

4) Expect foes and allies to be laughing/shaking their heads off - the United States of America, democracy in action, what's not to like? Har! Har! Har!   

And by the way, after Congress shuts down the government in about 24 hours, they should do it again for the 2012 budget, because -- hell, why the heck not? This would give them a chance to talk about patriotism, sacrifices, and all that, even if they cannot do the hard work of coming together in a compromise like adults without the sugar high.  Besides, they still get their paychecks even in a shutdown, and even when they have nothing to show as accomplishments since Congress convened in early January. What's not to like?     

Below from the DPB:      

QUESTION: This shutdown that is under the clouds of shutdown, what is the State Department doing about it? Like, what is the message you are sending, for example, in Delhi? The Government of India, when it sees that government there’s a shutdown, how do – does it handle the Embassy staff there? Like --

MR. TONER: Good question, Tejinder. First and foremost, I think the message we’re sending is one that echoes the President’s message yesterday was that we are – we continue to believe a shutdown can be avoided, and also recognizing the importance of this matter because people depend on government services. Certainly, the Department of State, as a national security agency, has begun planning for the possibility of a shutdown. It should be noted that we will continue to implement our mission with – even with reduced staff.

We’re obviously receiving many inquiries both from the American public as well as you guys about what may happen to such services as passport and consular services, visa services, in the event of a shutdown. What I can say at this point is that they’re likely to be affected, but I can’t give much more detail beyond that. We will, however, continue to provide services vital to national security of the United States, including providing emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in need. I think I said yesterday that’s one of our core functions, and so we’ll continue to do that no matter what.

Beyond that, we’re making these contingency plans. We don’t have details. If this does happen, we’ll certainly communicate clearly to the American public what services are going to be directly affected and what they can expect, frankly, from the State Department.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up. If I have an appointment with the American Embassy for a visa on Monday, so should I be worried? Should I go? Should I not go?

MR. TONER: You should be – you should check the website. That will be one source of how we update information. We’ll likely put out statements, and I would also check with the Embassy –

QUESTION: When will that be –

MR. TONER: -- once we get closer. But again, Tejinder, I think right now we are – while we are doing prudent planning, we also are – continue to believe that this can be resolved.

QUESTION: The visa appointments usually are starting very early in the morning.

MR. TONER: They are.

QUESTION: So what happens on those early appointments on Monday morning?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I would look to embassies to update their websites over the weekend. It’s a very good question, thank you. If that somehow changes, I’ll let you know in the course of the day tomorrow. But I would – what I would advise is that folks who do have early morning visa appointments on Monday check with the embassy website in their country as well as our embassy – as our State Department website here.

QUESTION: How much planning is going – I’m wondering how involved it is and how much it’s taking away from what everyone here would be doing in their normal jobs. It’s –

MR. TONER: I mean, look, we’re certainly planning for it. I mean, obviously, OMB has the overall or overarching responsibility here. But we’re certainly aware of the deadline, and we’re taking steps to ensure that we’re able to carry out our duties that are in the pursuit of our national security recognizing, again, some of the likely consequences will be reduced staff and other impacts.

QUESTION: So you think if the government shuts down on Friday night that the embassies are still going to be updating their websites over the weekend?

MR. TONER: We will – as I said, we will –

QUESTION: No, I realize that –

MR. TONER: Yeah, no, it’s a good question, Matt.

QUESTION: I realize that you want to –

MR. TONER: That’s a good question.

QUESTION: -- treat this as a hypothetical because it’s still an “if” question, but the problem is is that by refusing to reveal your plans for dealing with this, you are creating intense hardship and consternation among not just American citizens but people around the world who want to know. And you can’t just say – continue to say, “Well, we’re planning,” and not tell people what they should expect –

MR. TONER: We – when –

QUESTION: -- simply because you’re hoping that a shutdown isn’t going happen.

MR. TONER: Again, we understand that people need to have information about what they can expect even over the weekend or certainly come Monday morning, and we will get that information out.

QUESTION: Well, how –

MR. TONER: And we will get it out in a timely manner.

QUESTION: Well, if someone today needs a passport, what should they do if the government is going be shut down? If they apply by mail, is it just going to sit there? And their application is just going sit there and nothing is going to happen to it for weeks on end or however long this lasts?

MR. TONER: Again, those services may be impacted, but I can’t say at this time how long it might be impacted for.

QUESTION: Do you have –

QUESTION: Well, I know that you can’t say how long it will be impacted, but why can’t you – you need to give some advice on what to do in the event that there is a government shutdown. And I don’t think you can escape by saying it’s still a – it’s a hypothetical until 11:59 on Friday night.

MR. TONER: I did not say we would wait until 11:59 on Friday night, but –

QUESTION: Well, yeah, you did. You said to check the embassy websites over the weekend.

MR. TONER: We will update information on what Americans should do –

QUESTION: And for all we know, there might not be any people working on the embassy –

MR. TONER: -- on what Americans should do in the event that there is a shutdown and how it will affect visa services and passport services.

QUESTION: And when do you think that information might be available?

MR. TONER: I – we’ll make it available at an appropriate time. I don’t have a specific date.

QUESTION: Well, presumably, it would be before 11:59 on Friday night?

MR. TONER: Presumably.

QUESTION: Can you –

QUESTION: Mark, just on the passport/visa issue, which is one that a lot of people are really interested in –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- you said it will be affected. Does it mean that visa services would stop or slow down? Can you at least go that far?

MR. TONER: I think there’s going to be – there would be an impact, obviously, if only because of the effect of reduced personnel, but it’s hard for me to say right now whether that would be a significant slowdown or beyond that.

QUESTION: Mark, can you just – just a quick follow-up on that. Can you just give us an idea of what kind of plans you have for the damage control or the whitewash, because there’s already – there is already damaging on the image of U.S. and other –

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) We try not use the word “whitewash” from the podium. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You understand it, though.

QUESTION: You said – I’m sorry, the question again was?

QUESTION: About the damage control or the whitewash for the – what is going on about the reputation of the U.S. in other capitals.

MR. TONER: Look, I mean, this is a broader issue. Our legislative bodies are discussing it with the executive branch, and it’s an important, important matter, and it’s part – it’s something that’s fundamental to our democracy. And they’re working to achieve consensus. It’s all the elements of the democratic process that make our country great. There’s no need to have some kind of propaganda or a spin campaign about it. It is what it is. It is democracy in action, and we’re hopeful that consensus can be reached.

QUESTION: Mark can –

QUESTION: Is there any reason to think that an effort to get anything done in a shutdown this time will be any different from what it was in ’95?

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I was overseas in 1995. I believe I continued to work. But there may be elements. It’s a different world. It’s a different – we communicate differently. There’s different – information management has become much more important to the Department. So it’s – there certainly will be elements that are different. I just don’t know right now.

QUESTION: Can you say yet whether the Administration – whether the State Department has its plan in place and –

MR. TONER: I think we’re finalizing a contingency plan. I mean, we’re a few days away, so we’re certainly hard at work on it.

QUESTION: Okay, and can you say at this point whether you’ve determined a set number of people that are – who would not be coming to work under that circumstance or a percentage or something?

MR. TONER: No, I – we’re still evaluating those numbers, and I don’t have any numbers for you now.

QUESTION: Mark, can you just clarify one thing? Let’s say in India, missions in India, it takes months to get an appointment for whatever –

MR. TONER: It does, and Tejinder spoke to this, and you’re talking about the visa process for interviews and –

QUESTION: Right, how are you going to handle those people? They have traveled miles and miles, hundreds of miles away to Delhi or in Bombay (inaudible) capital and all that.

MR. TONER: It’s a very, very fair question. I know firsthand how these people come for visa interviews, how they wait even on regular business days, and their patience in waiting in line, waiting for a visa interview, and indeed the length of time it takes to apply for an interview which speaks to, again, the – that many people want to travel to the United States. We will – I understand that – your question very well, and we will work again to make information available. I’ll try to get more details about how individual embassies may try to get that information out to people with interviews and how they may have to --


MR. TONER: -- to adjust their interviews. I’m sure that’s all being taken under active consideration.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Your concern – just to be made clear, your concerns extend to people beyond Indians, correct?

MR. TONER: Absolutely, worldwide, yes.

QUESTION: It will extend to countries around the world?

MR. TONER: Yes. Yes. They do.

QUESTION: It’s not just India where this is going to be a problem.


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