If Congress cannot approve a budget for 2016 by September 30, the end of this fiscal year, the US government will shut down. It’s a likely scenario since there are just a few more working days for lawmakers to come to an agreement and there’s no sign of that in sight. Here’s what you need to know about how a government shutdown could affect you.
What’s a Government Shutdown and Why Is This Happening?
Without an approved budget plan, government agencies will no longer have access to federal funds come October 1st. Effectively, it’s like a business not having any cash flow and being forced to put up “Sorry we’re closed” signs. If a government shutdown happens, some government services will continue to operate thanks to the Antideficiency Act (nice name, right?), which allows “essential” government services—such as the military and air traffic control—to keep operating even without authorized funds. A great many government functions, however—from national parks and federally funded scientific research to the FDA’s inspection of food and approval of new prescription drugs—will come to a halt during the shutdown furlough until Congress can come to a resolution.
This isn’t the first time the country faced the prospect of a shutdown. In October 2013, the government shut down for 16 days, and, before that, we had the longest shutdown in US history, the 21-day 1995-96 shutdown. In all of these cases, it’s not explicitly a budgeting disagreement between our lawmakers: It’s a political showdown, with one side refusing to pass the budget over controversial issues. In 2013, the fight was over Obamacare, with the Republican-led House of Representatives (led by Senator Ted Cruz) trying to delay or defund the Affordable Care Act. In the 1995-96 shutdown, the fight was between the Republican-controlled Congress and President Clinton over funding for Medicare, education, the environment, and public health.
This year it’s about Planned Parenthood. The Republican-led House of Representatives (again starring Ted Cruz) has voted to defund the women’s healthcare provider, which receives over $ 500 million a year in government funding—40 percent of the organization’s total $ 1.3 billion in revenue per year.
Although abortion is the central debate regarding Planned Parenthood—after controversial videos surfaced showing the organization’s staff allegedly discussing fetal tissue donation—the majority of Planned Parenthood’s services involve screening for sexually transmitted diseases, providing contraception, and offering other women’s health services, such as cancer screening.
Democrats are expected to block this legislation in the Senate, but if the bill reaches President Obama’s desk, the White House says he will veto it. Still, at least 28 conservative Republicans vow not to approve any budget that includes funding for Planned Parenthood. So we are at an impasse, with the budget deadline looming.
Who Does a Government Shutdown Affect?
Federal employees are most directly affected by a shutdown, since most of them won’t get paid during a furlough, but the rest of us taxpayers also end up paying a price.
Which Federal Employees Will Be Affected
Not all of the current 4 million+ federal employees will stop getting a paycheck during the shutdown. Some agencies, such as the US Postal Service, don’t depend on the congressional appropriations funds (the Post Office gets its income from postage and its other services), so they will continue to operate as usual. Yay, we’ll still get our mail!
For federal employees who aren’t part of these exempt agencies, whether or not they’ll continue working will depend on if they are “excepted” or “non-excepted.” According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM):
“Excepted employees” include employees who are (1) performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, (2) performing minimal activities as necessary to execute an orderly suspension of agency operations related to non-excepted activities, or (3) performing certain other types of excepted work. Agency legal counsels, working with senior agency managers, are determining which employees are designated to be handling “excepted” and “non-excepted” functions.
Excepted employees will continue to work as normal during a shutdown—but they will not be paid until after the shutdown is resolved. (Congresspeople, by the way, continue to get a paycheck.)
Non-excepted employees will be forced to stop working (even on a volunteer basis) and they, too, will not be paid during the shutdown. As the Washington Post reports, these furloughed employees will not be able to use paid time off such as annual leave during this period, they can’t borrow from their Thrift Savings Plan accounts, and they’ll have to pay back their portion of health insurance premiums accumulated during the shutdown once they return to work. It’s a raw deal for them, but there’s a good chance they’ll get paid later for that time:
Whether furloughed employees later will be paid for that time is up to Congress and the White House. The precedent is that they are later paid, and legislation already has been offered in the Senate to guarantee it if a shutdown happens again. (There was a separate set of unpaid furloughs in some agencies in the spring and summer of 2013 related to “sequestration” budget caps; those employees were not later paid for that time.)
Although previous shutdowns lasted only a few weeks, the threat of another one is already having its impact. Can you imagine being forced to work (or being forced not to work) without knowing if you’ll get paid? During the 2013 shutdown, 1.3 million non-postal federal employees worked without pay, 850,000 non-postal federal employees were put on furlough, and over 250,000 federal contractors were also affected.
How a Government Shutdown Would Affect the Rest of Us
Even if you don’t work for the government, a shutdown would have an effect on you. For one thing, federal agencies are now dedicating resources to deal with a possible shutdown, which means normal tasks aren’t getting full attention and the quality of these services suffer. For another, as Chris Cummiskey writes on Federal Times, new ideas and programs that help the public get frozen in time. Most importantly, during a shutdown, important services will be halted.
Unlike the last shutdown, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka Food Stamps) would likely stop providing monthly food benefits to the 45 million Americans who depend on it. In 2013 the agency had contingency funds, but those are no longer available.
As to what other government services we can expect to be closed, we can look to the OMB’s report regarding the shutdown in 2013:
Research, health, and safety-related services stalled. NASA shut down and the majority of employees at the National Institutes of Standards and Testing (NIST), National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, and Center for Diseases control were furloughed. It’s not just experimental research that came to a halt:
- Cutbacks in flu season monitoring left us without national flu season data for two weeks
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t inspect 1,200 sites, including hazardous waste facilities and drinking water systems
- Hundreds of patients couldn’t enroll in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health
- The FDA delayed over 850 food safety inspections
The Federal government lost billions of dollars (i.e., taxpayers’ money). OPM estimates roughly $ 2.5 billion was lost due to lost productivity of furloughed employees and the costs the government incurred for services not performed. Plus:
Beyond this, the Federal government also incurred other direct costs as a result of the shutdown. Fees went uncollected; IRS enforcement and other program integrity measures were halted; and the Federal government had to pay additional interest on payments that were late because of the shutdown.
Fewer jobs were created during the shutdown period than was expected. About 120,000 fewer jobs in the private sector because things like trade licenses and applications were put on hold, federal permitting and other reviews were halted (delaying job-creating energy and transportation projects), and loans to small businesses were halted.
Lending and economic programs for individuals were delayed. A wide variety of people were affected by this:
- Veterans: the backlog of veterans’ disability claims increased
- Anyone expecting a tax refund: Refunds totalling $ 4 billion were delayed
- Would-be homeowners: home loan decisions were delayed
- Low-income families: Head Start centers, which provide meals and medical screening to low-income children, were closed for more than a week
- Immigrants seeking citizenship: 16 out of 58 immigration courts were closed
- Travelers: passports and visas stopped being processed
- Recipients of Social Security benefits: the Social Security Administration paused in reviewing thousands of medical disability and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) applications
National museums, zoos, and parks closed. It’s not just an inconvenience for us not to be able to access these national resources: Communities surrounding national parks and monuments lost significant income during the shutdown. The National Park Service estimates we lost over $ 500 million in lost visitor spending nationwide during that time and the service lost about $ 7 million in revenue directly. The Smithsonian lost $ 4 million in revenue.
More seriously, in total, estimates put the economic cost of the shutdown between $ 12 billion and $ 24 billion. It was only 16 days, but a very expensive 16 days. This time around, we’re facing another possible shutdown over pretty small stakes: 1/50th of 1 percent of the government’s budget.
Clearly this is not a great way to govern. Few in or out of Washington—except some Republican presidential candidate hopefuls—want a shutdown. A CNN poll finds 71% of Americans say it’s more important for Congress to approve a budget and avoid a shutdown compared to the 22% who say it’s more important to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.
Even the Republican party, who would likely be blamed for the shutdown, is also split on this. Some Republican leaders are calling for a reconciliation: Get the legislation passed to defund Planned Parenthood and decouple it from the federal budget entirely. Other conservatives, however, are denouncing the plan, saying that even if the bill gets to the President, he would veto it, whereas a government shutdown would, they think, force Obama to agree to defund Planned Parenthood. In the 2013 shutdown, this strong-arming tactic didn’t work. Republican leaders caved and negotiated on their anti-Obamacare stance, a new spending bill was passed, and the shutdown finally ended.
As of now, it’s not clear if the government is going to shut down or not, and members of both parties are strategizing ways to avert a shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced stopgap legislation that would keep the government open until December 11, but redirects funding for Planned Parenthood to community health centers. Congress is expected to vote on this on Thursday, but it’s also expected to be turned down by Senate Democrats, who want a “clean” spending bill without defunding. (Even if this stopgap measure passes, it will only delay a possible shutdown until December.)
There isn’t much we as individuals can do now about a potential government shutdown. We can, however, donate to our national parks, zoos, and museums and we can contact our representatives in Congress to tell them how we want them to act and vote during these next few critical days. The good news is that pressure from constituents is what helped push Congress members to resolve the last shutdown—perhaps it will be enough to get them to avoid another one.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.