September 25, 2013

A guide to what happens in a government shutdown

By BRAD PLUMER The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — If the House and Senate can't agree on a government funding bill by Sept. 30, the federal government will shut down. And, right now, the House and Senate can't agree on a bill. They're wrangling over the Affordable Care Act.

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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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So ... it's time to start thinking about what a federal government shutdown would actually look like.

Not all government functions would simply evaporate come Oct. 1 – Social Security checks would still get mailed, and veterans' hospitals would stay open. But many federal agencies would shut their doors and send their employees home, from the Centers for Disease Control to financial regulators, the Department of Education and hundreds of national parks.

Here's a look at how a shutdown would work, which parts of the government would close, and which parts of the economy might be affected.

Q: Wait, what? Why is the federal government on the verge of shutting down?

A: There are wide swaths of the federal government that need to be funded each year in order to operate. If Congress can't agree on how to fund them, they have to close down. And, right now, Congress can't agree on how to fund them.

To get a bit more specific: Each year, the House and Senate is supposed to agree on 12 appropriations bills to fund the federal agencies and set spending priorities. Congress has become really bad at passing these bills, so in recent years they've resorted to stopgap budgets to keep the government funded (known as "continuing resolutions"). The last stopgap passed on March 28, 2013, and ends on Sept. 30.

In theory, Congress could pass another stopgap this week. But the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House are at odds over what that stopgap should look like. The House version included an item that would defund Obamacare. The Senate's bill will almost certainly strip that provision out. So we have a standoff.

Q: Does a shutdown mean everyone who works for the federal government has to go home?

Nope. The laws and regulations governing shutdowns separate federal workers into "essential" and "non-essential." (Actually, the preferred term nowadays is "excepted" and "non-excepted." This was tweaked in 1995 because "non-essential" seemed a bit hurtful. But we'll keep things simple.)

The Office of Management and Budget recently ordered managers at all federal agencies to conduct reviews to see which of their employees fall into each of these two categories. If a shutdown hits, the essential workers stick around, albeit without pay. The non-essential workers have to go home after a half-day of preparing to close shop.

Q: Which parts of government stay open?

A: There are a whole bunch of key government functions that carry on during a shutdown, including anything related to national security, public safety, or programs written into permanent law (like Social Security). Here's a partial list:

Any employee or office that "provides for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property." That means the U.S. military will keep operating, for one.

Any employee who conducts "essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property." So, for example: Air traffic control stays open. So do all emergency medical care, food-safety inspections, border patrol, federal prisons, law enforcement, emergency and disaster assistance, overseeing the banking system, operating the power grid, and guarding federal property.

Agencies have to keep sending out benefits and operating programs that are written into permanent law or get multi-year funding. That means sending out Social Security checks and providing certain types of veterans' benefits.

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