September 25, 2013

A guide to what happens in a government shutdown

By BRAD PLUMER The Washington Post

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Acadia National Park would be among the parks closed under a government shutdown. Here, tourists wait for the right wave to roll in at Thunder Hole at the park on Mount Desert Island.

Kennebec Journal File Photo / Michael G. Seamans

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All agencies with independent sources of funding remain open, including the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Reserve.

Congress also stays open, since its funding is written into permanent law. Some White House employees may have to go home, however.

Q: Do these "essential" employees who keep working get paid?

They don't get a paycheck during the shutdown. They do, however, receive retroactive pay if and when Congress decides to fund the government again.

A: So which parts of government actually shut down?

Everything else, basically. It's a long list.

We can see what happened in 1995 and 1996, the last two times the government actually shut down for a few weeks. These examples all come from a big Congressional Research Service report:

Health: The National Institutes of Health stopped accepting new patients for clinical research and stopped answering hotline calls about medial questions. The Centers for Disease Control stopped monitoring disease.

Law enforcement: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms stopped processing applications for firearms and alcohol. The federal government stopped work on about 3,500 bankruptcy cases as well as a number of child-support cases. The Border Patrol put a hold on hiring 400 new agents.

Parks and museums: The National Park Service closed 368 sites, such as Yosemite National Park in California. All told, some 7 million visitors were turned away. (One big exception was the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which stayed open only because Arizona agreed to pick up the tab.)

Regulatory agencies: The Environmental Protection Agency closes down almost entirely during a shutdown. So do certain financial regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Although corporations can still file documents like 10Ks through automated systems, there's no one around to scrutinize the paperwork.

(Small parts of) Social Security: During the last shutdown, the Social Security Administration was able to keep on enough employees to make sure the checks kept going out. But the agency didn't have enough staff to do things like answer phone calls or help recipients who needed to change addresses.

So some disruptions are possible.

Visas and passports: During the shutdown, around 20,000 to 30,000 applications from foreigners for visas went unprocessed each day. The State Department also had to let some 200,000 applications from Americans for visas gather dust.

Veterans: Although some key benefits continued and the VA hospitals remained open, "multiple services were curtailed, ranging from health and welfare to finance and travel."

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has a list of other possible effects of a shutdown: Funds to help states pay unemployment benefits could get disrupted, IRS tax-refund processing for certain returns would be suspended, new home-loan guarantees could cease, farm loans and payments would stop, and Small Business Administration approval of business loan guarantees and direct loans would likely cease.

Q: How many federal employees would be affected by a government shutdown?

A: Roughly half. Back in 2011, the government estimated that 1.2 million federal employees (out of 2 million or so) would likely get furloughed and sent home without pay in the event of a shutdown.

Note that this is actually a higher number than in 1995-1996 shutdowns, when only 800,000 (out of 2 million or so) were sent home. That's because the earlier shutdown was actually less widespread: At the time, Congress had already funded a few select parts of government, including the Department of Defense and the FDA. That hasn't happened this time around, at least not yet. So more employees will be affected.

Q: Do "non-essential employees" who get sent home ever get paid?

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