September 21, 2013

The budget standoff: Shutdown complicated, far-reaching

Many Americans would feel the effects, although the government would still provide some services.

By LISA REIN The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., leaves the floor of the House on Friday. The Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would prevent a government shutdown while crippling the Affordable Care Act. It has little chance of passage in the Senate.

The Associated Press

In a similar shutdown threat in 2011, the government said that of the roughly 2.1 million non-postal federal employees, all but about 800,000 would be kept on the job.

Q: What happens to Americans who are expecting checks for Social Security and other benefits?

A: 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.

Q: Would federal workers and contractors be paid?

A: 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.

Q: Has the government shut down before?

A: Not in recent years. But 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. Many affected agencies operated at a reduced level during the three weeks by spending down savings from previous budgets.

But this time, no appropriations bills have been signed into law. That means the entire government would have no money to operate at midnight Sept. 30.

Q: Weren't a lot of federal employee furloughed this year?

A: Yes, almost half of them. The standoff on Capitol Hill is over funding for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, because Congress has not passed any regular appropriations.

The recent furloughs were the result of another fiscal showdown that set into motion automatic cuts known as sequestration. The largest agency, the Defense Department, furloughed about 650,000 civilian employees for six days.

Government workers are also in the third year of a pay freeze.

Q: Do the president and Congress continue working?

A: 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.

In past shutdown threats, the judiciary has said it could continue operating for possibly two weeks with some fees and funds from previous years. Afterward, judges would have to go home.

Q: How does a shutdown end?

A: It's up to Congress and the White House. No doubt there would be plenty of pressure from the public and workforce. There is no law setting a time limit.

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