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. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
Add to Briefcase
Matt Berman
Sept. 30, 2013, 10:35 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
CFPB Decision May Reverberate to Other Agencies
54 minutes ago

"A federal appeals court's decision that declared the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau an arm of the White House relies on a novel interpretation of the constitution's separation of powers clause that could have broader effects on how other regulators" like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
1 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Twitter Bots Dominated First Debate
2 hours ago

Twitter bots, "automated social media accounts that interact with other users," accounted for a large part of the online discussion during the first presidential debate. Bots made up 22 percent of conversation about Hillary Clinton on the social media platform, and a whopping one third of Twitter conversation about Donald Trump.

Center for Public Integrity to Spin Off Journalism Arm
2 hours ago

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the nonprofit that published the Panama Papers earlier this year, is being spun off from its parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity. According to a statement, "CPI’s Board of Directors has decided that enabling the ICIJ to chart its own course will help both journalistic teams build on the massive impact they have had as one organization."

EPA Didn’t Warn Flint Residents Soon Enough
2 hours ago

According to a new report, the Environmental Protection Agency waited too long before informing the residents of Flint, Mich. that their water was contaminated with lead. Written by the EPA's inspector general, it places blame squarely at the foot of the agency itself, saying it had enough information by June 2015 to issue an emergency order. However, the order wasn't issued until the end of January 2016.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.