What a government shutdown would look like

  • Updated: September 21, 2013 - 5:58 PM

What the U.S. government looks like when it’s (partly) closed

With no deal in sight to pay the nation’s bills after midnight on Sept. 30, much of the federal government is set to run out of money days from now, and large functions of the federal world could shut down Oct. 1. What might this mean for you, your family and for the people who keep the government running? Here are some basics:

1 Who’s at fault if the government closes? It who’s at fault would likely depend on your political persuasion. Under a budget law passed 39 years ago, the House and Senate must approve 12 appropriations bills funding the federal government by Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year. It almost never happens. In the past 17 years — in 10 of which Congress was controlled by Republicans, four by Democrats and two with mixed leadership — Congress did not meet its deadline for approving the spending bills. This year’s confrontation is over the conservative Republican effort to defund the Affordable Care Act — a bill that is considered to have no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

2 Would the entire government close? Will anyone patrol the borders? Will services disappear and benefits such as Social Security checks stop? What about services to veterans? Can I still see the panda cub at the National Zoo? The government does not stop functioning completely. By law, certain agencies must be allowed to operate with unsalaried employees.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, those are employees who: Provide for national security; provide for benefit payments, and conduct essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property. Managers would still have to decide how the work is executed, such as who stays on the job and who doesn’t. So while the panda cub and her zoo-mates will get fed, the Zoo may not be open to visitors. The borders would still be patrolled. Veterans in hospitals would still receive care.

Government operations not directly paid for by the Treasury, the largest of which is the U.S. Postal Service, also would continue. In a similar shutdown threat in 2011, the government said that of the 2.1 million non-postal federal employees, all but about 800,000 would be kept on the job.

3 What happens to Americans who are expecting checks for Social Security and other benefits? These entitlement programs are considered mandatory spending, although payments could slow down if fewer federal employees must handle the work. In the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, military veterans saw some health and financial services delayed. However, some services for veterans are funded by budgets that cover multiple years, which means the Treasury would have to pay for them.

4 Would federal workers and contractors be paid? According to OMB’s missive this week, employees who stay on the job would not get a paycheck at first. But they would be entitled to retroactive pay once the government is running again. It gets murkier for nonessential employees. They would have to come to the office on the first day of a shutdown for up to half a day to secure files, fill out time and attendance forms and “otherwise make preparations to preserve their work.” Whether they would recover lost pay is up to Congress and the White House. In past shutdowns, those employees were paid retroactively, but there is no guarantee. They could not substitute paid leave such as vacation time, or even work voluntarily. That’s against the law.

5 Has the government shut down before? The government closed six times between 1977 and 1980, and nine times between 1981 and 1996. Shutdowns in the 1970s and 1980s ranged from three to 17 days. A shutdown in November 1995 lasted five days. The most recent shutdown was from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996. That one lasted 21 days.

The threat has come up repeatedly in recent years as lawmakers and the administration have battled over fiscal policy. Some say a shutdown now would have a bigger fallout than in 1995. Back then, several appropriations bills had been signed into law, including the two that funded the military, so most of the government stayed open. But this time, no appropriations bills have been signed into law. That means the entire government would have no money to operate at midnight on Sept. 30.

6Do the president and Congress continue working? The president and political appointees are exempt from furloughs, although that’s not true for all White House staff. Lawmakers would continue working and would be responsible for deciding who on their staffs is essential.

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