Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

How a Government Shutdown Works How a Government Shutdown Works

This ad will end in seconds
Close X

Want access to this content? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation


How a Government Shutdown Works

Who gets paid, who doesn't, and what you can expect from a closed-shop government.


A sign hangs on the door of the room where a Senate Democratic caucus is taking place about the ongoing budget fight, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Congress has less than 10 hours to come up with an agreement to keep the government funded. That won't be easy. But it's not like shutting down the government is so simple, either.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service outlines what federal agencies are supposed to do if and when a shutdown occurs. One of the first steps, based on guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget, is for agency heads to "decide what agency activities are expected or otherwise legally authorized to continue during an appropriations hiatus." Per CRS, OMB calls for agency shutdown plans to include:


• a summary of agency activities that will continue and those that will cease;

• an estimate of the time to complete the shutdown, to the nearest half-day;

• the number of employees expected to be on-board (i.e., filled positions) before implementation of the plan;

• the total number of employees to be retained, broken out into five categories of exceptions to the Antideficiency Act, including employees

1. who are paid from a resource other than annual appropriations;

2. who are necessary to perform activities expressly authorized by law;

3. who are necessary to perform activities necessarily implied by law;

4. who are necessary to the discharge of the president's constitutional duties and powers; and

5. who are necessary to protect life and property.

According to CRS, there's no guarantee that the employees of federal agencies on a shutdown furlough would receive back pay once the government is back up and running. There is some precedent, however, from recent shutdowns for Congress to mandate that these employees be paid retroactively. 

Federal employees who are "essential," or excepted from a furlough, would be paid for their work once payroll centers resume functioning.


In the judiciary, some funds from court filings and other fees exist that could help keep the branch afloat for a few days after a shutdown. But if a shutdown lasts long enough for those funds to dry up, the branch would just continue "essential work."

Throughout government, there is some work that is considered essential and won't be shut down. A 1981 OMB memo, which was in effect for the shutdowns in the '90s, lays out these functions:

1. Provide for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property.

2. Provide for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multiyear or other funds remaining available for those purposes.

3. Conduct essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property, including:

a. Medical care of inpatients and emergency outpatient care;

b. Activities essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food and drugs and safe use of hazardous materials;

c. The continuance of air traffic control and other transportation safety functions and the protection of transport property;

d. Border and coastal protection and surveillance;

e. Protection of federal lands, buildings, waterways, equipment, and other property owned by the United States;

f. Care of prisoners and other persons in the custody of the United States;

g. Law enforcement and criminal investigations;

h. Emergency and disaster assistance;

i. Activities essential to the preservation of the essential elements of the money and banking system of the United States, including borrowing and tax-collection activities of the Treasury

j. Activities that ensure production of power and maintenance of the power distribution system; and

k. Activities necessary to maintain protection of research property

But there's a lot that obviously won't be running, if the patterns from the '90s shutdowns hold: 

  • New patients won't be admitted to the National Institutes of Health, and NIH won't be accepting hotline calls on diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will stop disease surveillance. So, you know, let's hope there's no sudden contagion.
  • Federal law-enforcement officials will stop being tested and recruited. Delinquent child-support cases could be delayed.
  • In the 1990s, 368 national parks were shut down, with a loss of 7 million visitors. National museums and monuments lost an estimated 2 million visitors.
  • American tourist industries and airlines could face millions of dollars in losses due to hundreds of thousands of unprocessed visa applications and U.S. passport applications.
  • American veterans lost multiple services during the '90s shutdowns.
  • Employees of federal contractors could be furloughed without pay as funding shuts down for billions of dollars worth of contracts.
  • There could be national security implications, CRS found, because the U.S. could be perceived as being physically and politically vulnerable.

In total, a government shutdown could cost the U.S. billions of dollars. That's even with an estimated 59 percent of nondefense federal employees being exempted from the shutdown, according to an analysis from USA Today.

And if you're a furloughed worker, don't even think about trying to "volunteer" for work. That's prohibited under the Anti-Deficiency Act, and is punishable by fines or even prison time.

Oh, and there are a couple groups of workers who definitely won't be furloughed during a shutdown. Those include: The president, presidential appointees, and members of Congress. And Supreme Court justices won't see any cuts to their pay.

comments powered by Disqus