It’s that time again. Congress must meet and agree, at least mostly, on just how much money they’ll need to run the nation and where best to apply it. Should they fail in this task – gasp – the federal government “shuts down.” Will they shut it down? Probably not – but maybe. What then? Will lawlessness ensue? Will society collapse and the children of the poor face starvation and exposure in the streets?
Nope. If Congress can’t get it together in time, very little will change for most Americans. Make no mistake – it’s hardly a good thing, as a lot of federal employees might be sent home without pay. Worse, the military won’t be cut loose, but may still see a delay in paychecks – though with this potential shutdown beginning just four days after their last paycheck, it would have to last longer than most. But for those who aren’t employed by the federal government, most won’t even notice unless they’re watching the news.
Why Shutdowns Happen
Prior to 1981, funding gaps didn’t shut anything down. Government operations continued more or less as usual, and were paid for retroactively once budget deals were eventually reached. However, under the current interpretation of the Antideficiency Act – courtesy of Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti – the president is required to freeze non-essential discretionary federal programs if Congress fails to appropriate funds. Ideally, Congress comes to an agreement on the budget for the next year by the deadline of September 30. Should that fail, they either manage to pass a continuing funding resolution (CR), or shutdown occurs.
What Shuts Down
The exact list of disrupted programs and departments varies depending, primarily, on how long the shutdown lasts versus how long the money lasts. Some things, however, will not be shut down or disrupted at all, as they’re considered essential and mandatory.
The major departments that shut down are:
- Commerce – except for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Energy – except functions that oversee the safety of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, dams, and transmission lines.
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Food and Drug Administration
- Health and Human Services
- Housing and Urban Development
- Interior – including National Parks
- Internal Revenue Service
- Labor – including Bureau of Labor Statistics
- National Institute of Health
The annoying potential effects of any shutdown are delays in travel and passport/visa applications, delays in tax returns without an extension on the deadline to pay taxes owed, the closure of national parks and museums, and the unpaid furlough of thousands of federal employees deemed non-essential. Also, while the military is considered essential, and therefore must work through a shutdown, the Department of Defense is unable to pay soldiers until some funding agreement is reached.
One side effect that probably bothers most Washington DC. Denizens is that, since the capital is a federal district requiring Congressional permission to spend money, there won’t be any garbage collection or street cleaning during a shutdown.
The closure of parks and museums, oddly enough, seems to be one of the most complained about parts of potential shutdowns. Let’s face it – aside from any furloughed employees, this is a mild inconvenience at worst. No one is going to suffer tremendously because they couldn’t visit the Statue of Liberty or the Smithsonian for a few days.
On the other hand, the loss of pay for furloughed workers and the military personnel who aren’t given time off is a real problem. Of the 18 shutdowns in modern history, however, there were only seven that actually involved temporarily laying off workers. Of those seven, three lasted merely one or two days. Have a look at this little chart that shows just how often workers were sent home, and for how long.
Additionally, while the government isn’t explicitly required to retroactively pay these employees for their involuntary leave, it always has – turning each period out of work into additional paid time off – doubly so, if the employees qualified for and received unemployment benefits (see “What Won’t Change” below).
Of course, as was the case with the 21 and 16 days of shutdown in 1996 and 2013, missing entire pay periods can put furloughed workers in an uncomfortable, though probably not dire situation. After all, while you’re highly unlikely to have your utilities turned off, your car repossessed, or face eviction after a single missed payment, that back-pay check isn’t much consolation after you’ve racked up late fees on everything and had to eat hotdogs on dry bread every day for a month.
What Won’t Change
What isn’t affected by government shutdowns – especially very brief ones – is pretty much everything else not mentioned above. The mail will still run, as the USPS is independently funded. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP benefits (Food Stamps), Welfare, Unemployment, and emergency services are all considered mandatory and are not in any way affected by the temporary gap of discretionary funding. Federal courts will remain open, though they could close in shutdowns lasting more than ten days. Schools will still offer free lunches until they run out of funds – which for most school districts, takes longer than any government shutdown has yet lasted. While you may experience delays, travel by air and rail will not be stopped.
Quite possibly the most aggravating fact of government shutdowns is that the quarrelsome and ineffective politicians who are to blame for the crisis in the first place still get paid.
Will Congress Reach an Agreement in Time?
House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled a plan Tuesday he seems confident will allow them to keep the ball rolling while they continue their negotiations. It would fund the government through February 16, and was, according to lawmakers and aides, well received.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the GOP doesn’t have the votes to push the proposal through the House. Neither side claims to want a shutdown, but they both want more than just a clean CR. The Democrats want it to protect DACA, and the Republicans won’t trade DACA for anything less than funding for border security and a wall. Despite claims across the aisle that none of them want a shutdown, the majority of both sides seem perfectly willing to let the stalemate continue. If a shutdown occurs, each faction will just blame the other.
However, not everyone is quite so stubborn. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said that he would support a short-term CR without any DACA protections if it means keeping the government funded. “I think everyone has the empathy and compassion to want to help these young people who are stranded and we’re trying to find that, but shutting down the government isn’t going to help them.” And some of the GOP are still hopeful a DACA-free CR is possible.
At this point, Congress is almost certainly not going to resolve this issue before Friday’s deadline. The best we can feasibly hope for is another CR – hopefully, one that leaves enough time to reach a real agreement.
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