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Shutdown Shenanigans

What happens if the federal government closes its doors?

The possibility of a government shutdown could mean that government services from food-safety inspections to museums and military pay.(Getty Photos)

photo of Katy O'Donnell
April 5, 2011

With the prospect of a federal government shutdown looming ever closer--the current continuing resolution runs through April 8--politicians in both parties are sounding the alarm about the perils that may lie ahead.

If a deal were not reached, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., earlier this year suggested that food-safety inspections, military pay, and Social Security checks would all be in the crosshairs. "So much is at stake if this great government shuts down," she warned.

Perhaps--over the long term. But the 17 government shutdowns since 1977 have all been blips on the radar, with the longest lasting 21 days, from December 15, 1995, to January 6, 1996.


So what really happens when the government is shuttered? Not much. During the 21-day shutdown, less than 15 percent of the federal workforce was actually idled.

National-security and public-safety operations continue. So do benefit payments, medical care, tax collection, border protection, prison patrol, crime investigation, and air traffic control. The Postal Service and the Federal Reserve will both be open for business because they generate their own revenues.

Government museums close; people can’t apply for passports; tourism takes a hit. But the Office of Management and Budget, which set the basic rules for shutdowns back in 1981, stipulates that agencies continue to conduct essential activities “to protect life and property.”

Any employee deemed “essential”--from Transportation Security Administration agents to Social Security check writers--is considered exempt from the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the acceptance of voluntary services and forbids federal officials to assign funds before an appropriations measure has been enacted. Nonessential employees, on the other hand, cannot report to work. In the first shutdown in 1995, which lasted five days, some 800,000 workers were furloughed; the second, longer closure resulted in 284,000 being furloughed, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Executive agencies must submit lists of essential employees and “plans for an orderly shutdown in the event of the absence of appropriations” to OMB. But the contingency plans are difficult to come by, possibly because of the political implications of classifying government employees as “nonessential.”  

When the government resumed operations in 1996, employees were paid retroactively, but that isn't a given. If retroactive wages aren’t specifically included in the post-shutdown spending bill from Congress--which could happen, given the unpopularity of public workers in the current political environment--government workers aren’t paid. And government contractors--critical for defense and health care--are another issue entirely.


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