Accidents Go Uninvestigated Due to the Shutdown

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Aviation, rail and subway accidents are going uninvestigated because of the government shutdown, the acting head of the National Transportation Safety Board told a Senate panel on Friday.

“In the 10 days that have passed since the lapse of appropriations, there are a number of accidents that have occurred in which we have not sent an investigator or investigative team,” Deborah A. P. Hersman told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

With 383 of the NTSB’s 405 employees furloughed, “the shutdown has resulted in the suspension of ongoing investigative work across all modes of transportation,” including postponement of two investigative hearings and the issuance of “two sets of urgent recommendations identifying imminent threats to life or property,” Hersman added.

In “choreographing to try to slot in all this work,” she added, “one of the most frustrating things over the past 10 days is seeing that the workforce wants to get back to work,” she said. “They went to work for NTSB because they care about transportation safety. It’s hard to tell them they can’t do their job.”

Committee Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., convened the hearing with a blast at Republicans for their legislative tactics and willingness to cater to political priorities of the tea party. “The damage and the disruption caused by this government shutdown are real,” he said. “It is hurting our families, our businesses, our government, and our standing in the world. It never should have happened.”

Rockefeller also noted that “one of the people sitting home this week on furlough, without a salary” is National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic scientist David Wineland, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize. “The small handful of Members of Congress who engineered the government shutdown don’t seem to value Dr. Wineland’s work as much as the world’s leading scientists do,” he said.

The “vast majority of federal scientists fall in the nonessential category,” testified Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The shutdown is more than simply a temporary work stoppage for science,” he added. It will “interrupt many longitudinal studies and observations that depend on continuity over time for their success. Moreover, many kinds of data on which the nation depends will be lost.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is functioning with only 4 percent, or 23 of its 540 employees, during the shutdown, said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “This means that CPSC does not have port inspectors evaluating products as they come into the ports, especially during this pre-holiday season,” she said. “The CPSC has suspended civil penalty negotiations that don’t affect immediate health and safety, and it receives consumer incident data reports about potentially dangerous products but is not publishing them during the shutdown.”

Discussion among senators centered on whether the Senate should take up the narrowed versions of various appropriations bills that the House has passed since the shutdown began. “Isn’t some funding better than none?” asked Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Rockefeller and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, countered that many of the activities discussed in the Friday hearing were not included in the House bills, and that the whole of government should be funded.

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