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
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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.

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