Travel industry fears damage from a long government shutdown
By DAVID KOENIG and CHRISTOPHER RUGABER
Friday, January 18
America’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, is a blur of activity on the best of days. But an extra layer of anxiety gripped the airport Friday, the eve of a three-day holiday weekend. The partial government shutdown — the longest ever — has thinned the ranks of federal workers who staff airport security lines. And some travelers had braced for the worst.
“I have a 3 o’clock flight, and I arrived at 10:15 a.m.,” Beth Lambert said while waiting to check in at a Delta Air Lines counter as her 5-year-old, Michael, rode around on his wheeled bag like a scooter. “We’re going to be hanging out for a while.”
The scene at most of the nation’s airports has so far been marked more by concerned passengers showing up early than by missed flights. Longer lines are evident at some airports. But delays resulting from a rise in federal security screeners calling in sick have been slight.
Yet concern is quickly growing. President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress remain far apart over Trump’s insistence on funding for a wall along the Mexican border as the price of reopening the government. With the two sides trading taunts and avoiding talks, travel industry analysts and economists have been calculating the potential damage should the shutdown drag into February or beyond.
Airlines and hotels would suffer. So would parks and restaurants that cater to travelers. And, eventually, the broader U.S. economy, already absorbing a trade war with China and a global economic slowdown, would endure another blow.
The travel and tourism industries generate about $1.6 trillion in U.S. economic activity — one-twelfth of the economy — and one in 20 jobs, according to the Commerce Department. Macroeconomic Advisers says it now expects the economy to expand at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, down from its previous forecast of 1.6 percent, because of reduced government spending during the shutdown.
America’s air-travel system will face its sternest this weekend, which coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, a federal holiday.
On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration sent a small team of extra screeners to beef up checkpoints at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, which has had among the longest lines in the country this week.
The TSA predicts it will screen over 8 million passengers between Friday and Monday, up 10.8 percent from last year’s MLK weekend. And it will do so with fewer screeners. On Thursday, the TSA said 6.4 percent of screeners missed work — nearly double the 3.8 percent rate on the same day in 2018.
A TSA spokesman said the agency was offering overtime to screeners for this weekend, though those workers wouldn’t be paid — for their regular pay or for overtime— until the shutdown eventually ends.
On top of potentially longer airport security lines this weekend, a blast of winter weather could snarl travel this weekend in the Midwest and Northeast.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, home to Delta Air Lines, has likely been the hardest hit airport. Delta said this week that the shutdown will cost it $25 million in January because fewer federal employees and contractors will be flying. By contrast, United Airlines, which has a substantial presence around Washington, D.C., said it hasn’t felt much impact yet.
But the airlines fear that if the shutdown doesn’t end soon, more TSA agents will call in sick or quit. A shortage of screeners would cause security lines to swell. Air traffic controllers, who are also working without pay, say they, too, are short-staffed. If the controller shortage became severe enough, the government could restrict the number of flights, though some analysts think that’s unlikely.
“Luckily this is the low season — January is one of the weakest months of the year,” said Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James. “This spilling into February is a real concern. The risk is that the longer this drags out, it might cause some passengers to say, ‘I don’t want to deal with all the hassle, maybe I won’t take that trip.’”
Consumers are, in fact, taking a dimmer view of the economy, in part because of the shutdown. A measure of consumer confidence fell this month by the most in more than six years, according to the University of Michigan, which conducts the survey. If Americans were to cut back on travel and other discretionary spending, it would weaken consumer spending, the U.S. company’s primary fuel.
Laura Mandala, who runs a travel and tourism research firm, said the shutdown might discourage international travelers, too.
“These uncertainties will result in fewer conferences being booked,” Mandala said, leading to “convention and hotel staff layoffs, reduced schedules, resulting in less income for workers to spend in the local economy.”
Hotels are starting to feel the impact, particularly in the Washington, D.C., region but also in other cities with substantial federal workforces, such as San Diego, which has a large naval base.
In the Washington area, including its nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, hotel revenue plunged 26 percent in the second week of January compared with the same period last year, according to STR, a travel research firm. That’s much steeper than the 8 percent decline that occurred nationwide.
Michael Bellisario, an analyst for investment bank R.W. Baird, suggested that other factors accounted for the most of the nationwide drop but said the shutdown almost certainly played a role.
“In no way is the government shutdown a positive for hotel demand and travel,” Bellisario said.
If the shutdown lingers and people see more reports of long TSA lines on television news, “they will say, ‘Oh wow, traveling is hard,’ and that impacts the hotel industry,” said Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at STR.
For now, though, the most visible impact has been at airports. One of the seven checkpoints at Houston’s main airport has been closed all week and will remain so indefinitely, a spokesman said. Miami closed one concourse during the afternoons and evenings last weekend. On the other hand, officials at airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami said they weren’t experiencing any problems.
The problems would emerge if the shutdown persists, and the damage would extend to the private companies that operate airport shops and restaurants.
Mike Boyd, an airport consultant in Colorado, noted that a pullback in travel would be felt most in airports that are heavily dependent on government employees such as Reagan National Airport outside Washington, Manhattan Regional Airport in Kansas, near the Army’s Fort Riley, and Watertown International Airport in upstate New York, near Fort Drum.
Federal employees going without pay — there are about 800,000 of them, including 420,000 who are still working — are already suffering, of course.
“We still have to make sure our kids eat, make sure to have a roof over their head,” said Shalique Caraballo, whose wife is a TSA worker in Atlanta. “We sweat in private and don’t let the kids see the struggle.”
Some in the airline industry and even in Congress have suggested that longer TSA security lines could exert enough pressure on politicians to break the stalemate that is keeping the government shuttered.
Others have all but lost hope.
“I would love to think that politicians understand that travel and tourism is an incredibly important gear in the economy,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, which owns and manages travel agencies, “but I don’t think that is really the rational discussion that is taking place in Washington.”
Koenig reported from Dallas and Rugaber from Washington. AP staffers Sarah Blake Morgan and Ron Harris in Atlanta and Cathy Bussewitz in New York contributed to this report.
A teen scientist helped me discover tons of golf balls polluting the ocean
January 18, 2019
Author: Matthew Savoca, Postdoctoral researcher, Stanford University
Disclosure statement: Matthew Savoca does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has become a global environmental crisis. Many people have seen images that seem to capture it, such as beaches carpeted with plastic trash or a seahorse gripping a cotton swab with its tail.
As a scientist researching marine plastic pollution, I thought I had seen a lot. Then, early in 2017, I heard from Alex Weber, a junior at Carmel High School in California.
Alex emailed me after reading my scientific work, which caught my eye, since very few high schoolers spend their time reading scientific articles. She was looking for guidance on an unusual environmental problem. While snorkeling in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary near the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Alex and her friend Jack Johnston had repeatedly come across large numbers of golf balls on the ocean floor.
As environmentally conscious teens, they started removing golf balls from the water, one by one. By the time Alex contacted me, they had retrieved over 10,000 golf balls – more than half a ton.
Golf balls sink, so they don’t become eyesores for future golfers and beachgoers. As a result, this issue had gone largely unnoticed. But Alex had stumbled across something big: a point source of marine debris – one that comes from a single, identifiable place – polluting federally protected waters. Our newly published study details the scope of this unexpected marine pollutant and some ways in which it could affect marine life.
Cleaning up the mess
Many popular golf courses dot the central California coast and use the ocean as a hazard or an out-of-bounds. The most famous course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is site of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship.
Alex wanted to create a lasting solution to this problem. I told her that the way to do it was to meticulously plan and systematically record all future golf ball collections. Our goal was to produce a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting the scope of the problem, and to propose a plan of action for golf courses to address it.
Alex, her friends and her father paddled, dove, heaved and hauled. By mid-2018 the results were startling: They had collected nearly 40,000 golf balls from three sites near coastal golf courses: Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the Carmel River Mouth. And following Alex’s encouragement, Pebble Beach employees started to retrieve golf balls from beaches next to their course, amassing more than 10,000 additional balls.
In total, we collected 50,681 golf balls from the shoreline and shallow waters. This represented roughly 2.5 tons of debris – approximately the weight of a pickup truck. By multiplying the average number of balls lost per round played (1-3) and the average number of rounds played annually at Pebble Beach, we estimated that patrons at these popular courses may lose over 100,000 balls per year to the surrounding environment.
The toxicity of golf balls
Modern golf balls are made of a polyurethane elastomer shell and a synthetic rubber core. Manufacturers add zinc oxide, zinc acrylate and benzoyl peroxide to the solid core for flexibility and durability. These substances are also acutely toxic to marine life.
When golf balls are hit into the ocean, they immediately sink to the bottom. No ill effects on local wildlife have been documented to date from exposure to golf balls. But as the balls degrade and fragment at sea, they may leach chemicals and microplastics into the water or sediments. Moreover, if the balls break into small fragments, fish, birds or other animals could ingest them.
The majority of the balls we collected showed only light wear. Some could even have been resold and played. However, others were severely degraded and fragmented by the persistent mechanical action of breaking waves and unremitting swell in the dynamic intertidal and nearshore environments. We estimated that over 60 pounds of irrecoverable microplastic had been shed from the balls we collected.
Thanks to Alex Weber, we now know that golf balls erode at sea over time, producing dangerous microplastics. Recovering the balls soon after they are hit into the ocean is one way to mitigate their impacts. Initially, golf course managers were surprised by our findings, but now they are working with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to address the problem.
Alex is also working with managers at the sanctuary to develop cleanup procedures that can prevent golf ball pollution in these waters from ever reaching these levels again. Although her study was local, her findings are worrisome for other regions with coastal golf courses. Nonetheless, they send a positive message: If a high school student can accomplish this much through relentless hard work and dedication, anyone can.
Trump’s shutdown proposal faces uncertain fate in Senate
By JILL COLVIN and LISA MASCARO
Tuesday, January 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s proposal to reopen the government, with immigration provisions Democrats have denounced as inadequate, is headed for Senate action, its prospects uncertain.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will try to muscle through the 1,300-page spending measure, which includes $5.7 billion to fund Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the sticking point in the standoff between Trump and Democrats that has led to a partial government shutdown now in its 32nd day.
Meanwhile, another missed paycheck looms for hundreds of thousands of federal workers and Democrats say they won’t negotiate border funding while the shutdown continues.
Senate Republicans late Monday unveiled the legislation, dubbed the “End The Shutdown And Secure The Border Act,” but its passage this week is by no means certain.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber but need Democrats to reach the usual 60-vote threshold for bills to advance. No Democrat has publicly expressed support for the proposal Trump announced over the weekend.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s office reiterated that Democrats are unwilling to negotiate any border security funding until Trump reopens the government.
“Nothing has changed with the latest Republican offer,” Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said. “President Trump and Senate Republicans are still saying: ‘Support my plan or the government stays shut.’ That isn’t a compromise or a negotiation — it’s simply more hostage taking.”
The Republican plan is a trade-off: Trump’s border wall funding in exchange for temporary protection from deportation for some immigrants. To try to draw more bipartisan support, it adds $12.7 billion in supplemental funding for regions hit by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. All told, it would provide about $350 billion for nine Cabinet departments whose budgets are stalled. Other than the wall and immigration-related provisions, the core measure hews closely to a package of spending bills unveiled by House Democrats last week.
In exchange for $5.7 billion for Trump’s wall, the legislation would extend temporary protections against deportation to around 700,000 immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Trump has tried dismantling the Obama-era program, which covers people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children, but has been blocked by federal lawsuits.
That figure is substantially lower than the 1.8 million people Trump proposed protecting a year ago in a plan that also included other immigration changes and $25 billion to pay the full costs of building his wall. Trump’s proposal was among several the Senate rejected last February.
The new Senate bill would also provide three more years of temporary protections against deportation to around 325,000 immigrants in the U.S. who have fled countries racked by natural disasters or violent conflicts. Trump has ended that program, called Temporary Protected Status, for El Salvador, which has the most holders of the protected status, as well as for Honduras, Nicaragua and several other countries.
Democrats said that Trump’s proposal for a three-year DACA extension didn’t go far enough and that he was simply offering to restore elements of immigration provisions he’d taken away. And immigration advocates protested a Trump-backed plan to require children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who are seeking asylum in the U.S. to apply at processing centers to be set up in Central America.
Some on the right, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter, accused Trump of offering “amnesty.”
“No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer,” Trump tweeted Sunday, in response. He added: “Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else.”
While the House and the Senate are scheduled to be back in session Tuesday, no votes have been scheduled on Trump’s plan. McConnell spokesman David Popp said the GOP leader “will move” to vote on consideration of the president’s proposal this week. The bill includes funding for most domestic agencies.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead this week with their legislation to reopen the government and add $1 billion for border security — including 75 more immigration judges and infrastructure improvements — but no funding for the wall.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Democrats are playing “political games” and repeated his claims that the wall is a solution to drugs and crime — although the Drug Enforcement Administration says only a small percentage of drugs comes into the country between ports of entry.
“Without a Wall our Country can never have Border or National Security,” Trump tweeted. “With a powerful Wall or Steel Barrier, Crime Rates (and Drugs) will go substantially down all over the U.S. The Dems know this but want to play political games. Must finally be done correctly. No Cave!”
The impact of the government’s longest-ever shutdown continues to ripple across the nation. The longest previous shutdown was 21 days in 1995-96, when Bill Clinton was president.
The Transportation Security Administration said the percentage of its airport screeners missing work hit 10 percent on Sunday, up from 3.1 percent on the comparable Sunday a year ago.
The screeners, who have been working without pay, have been citing financial hardship as the reason they can’t report to work. Even so, the agency said it screened 1.78 million passengers Sunday with only 6.9 percent having to wait 15 minutes or longer to get through security.
Asked in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” whether Trump’s Saturday proposal represented a “final offer,” Vice President Mike Pence said the White House was willing to negotiate.
“Well, of course,” Pence said. “The legislative process is a negotiation.”
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
The Trump administration wants to tighten SNAP work requirements, bypassing Congress
January 22, 2019
Author: Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, Assistant Professor of Agriculture and Human Sciences, North Carolina State University
Disclosure statement: Lindsey Haynes-Maslow receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed).
Partners: North Carolina State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
The Trump administration wants to tighten even further longstanding restrictions on who is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The farm bill, which gets updated every five years or so, spells out who can participate in SNAP, the assistance program previously known as food stamps. The most recent version of this legislation, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Dec. 20, 2018, left out new limits on the eligibility of adults without children. Those limits were part of the House version, but Congress dropped them prior to the bill’s passage.
But that same day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule that would restrict access anyway.
Having researched food assistance programs, I’ve seen that the consequences of having too little to eat are daunting. When people can’t afford food, they may skip meals, which leads to increased stress and poor nutrition. For people with chronic diseases like diabetes, meal-skipping can even make them more prone to hospitalization when their blood sugar gets too low.
Trying for decades
When President Bill Clinton and the Republican-led Congress overhauled the welfare system in 1996, they imposed some work requirements for SNAP participants.
To get these benefits, non-disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without children are required to do paid work or be enrolled in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week. If they fail to find work or enroll in training, they can only participate in the program once every three years for up to three months.
Despite these rules, which block access to millions of adults, nearly 40 million poor Americans in roughly 20 million households rely on SNAP. Even though the average SNAP recipient just gets about US$1.40 per meal, research indicates that this program reduces food insecurity by nearly 30 percent.
Policymakers argue that these restrictions improve economic security by encouraging people to join the labor force. And most do join the labor force. A report the White House Council of Economic Advisers released during the Obama administration found that work rates among SNAP recipients had risen steadily since the 1990s.
However, does joining the labor force really improve economic security? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, found that requiring safety net program recipients to work did not make them better off. In some cases, work requirements have plunged people deeper into poverty.
Additionally, researchers at Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities have observed that the jobs poor people take have remained largely low-paying. This means they still need SNAP because they don’t earn enough to keep food on the table.
Although SNAP is federally funded, the states administer the program. Currently, state governments can request waivers for SNAP time limits on benefits for people with work requirements for multiple reasons, including if their local jobless rate is at least 20 percent above the national average for a recent 24-month period. Based on the current national unemployment rate, the proposed new rule would bar states from applying for this waiver unless their unemployment rate is at least 7 percent.
Among other changes, the federal government would limit the flexibility states now have to exercise a degree of discretion in exempting non-disabled adults without kids from the three-month time limit.
The public will get two months to comment on these new rules. If this rule were to go into effect as is, more than 750,000 people could lose SNAP benefits, according to the draft language. For now, people who rely on SNAP can still use their benefits – as long as the government shutdown doesn’t go past February. After then, unless Congress passes legislation specifically funding SNAP, the program’s fate is unknown.
This administrative route to bypassing congressional consensus is not how American democracy is supposed to work – nor is it the norm, as Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, explained when the USDA proposed this rule.
“Congress writes laws and the Administration is required to write rules based on the law,” she said, “not the other way around.”
This democracy works because of the checks and balances between the three branches of government. When one branch chooses to override this separation of powers, I believe democracy – just like SNAP participants’ benefits – is jeopardized.