Guide to a federal government shutdown

Not much has changed since I wrote “Guide to a Government Shutdown” in April 2011. There’s been an election since, with politicians promising to work together because the American people don’t much care for this style of government.

But here we are again and, again, the chances are pretty good that a stopgap funding measure will be passed at the last minute.

If not, keep this handy.

Will I get my Social Security payment?

Yes. But there is some dispute over how many Social Security workers would stay on the job. You could still apply for Social Security benefits and disability benefits. But that’s a process that can drag on for a year or more, anyway.

What is the most obvious effect of the shutdown?

Plan on seeing TV news footage of families who’ve been saving up for a vacation in Washington, turned away from a locked Smithsonian or National Archives, or any other government-run museum or attraction, including the national parks. In Minnesota, this would obviously include Voyageurs.

For people who operate restaurants and businesses in areas where there are lots of federal workers, the shutdown will likely cost them dearly.

It would be a bad time for one of those salmonella outbreaks or mysterious illnesses to occur. The Centers for Disease Control will stop tracking them during a shutdown.

Would the VA facilities close?

No. Medical employees who provide inpatient and emergency care are considered essential. But outpatient treatment would likely be curtailed.

Would federal courts close?

Bad news, white-collar criminals. They stay open.

Would it be safe to fly?

Air traffic controllers are considered essential so there would be no disruption in ATC activities. Metal fatigue in aging aircraft, however, doesn’t know when the government is operating and when it isn’t.

What if there’s a wildfire, tornado, hurricane or other disaster?

Disaster response is not affected in a shutdown.

My business works on government grants, will I be affected?

If the contract is in force now and funds have already been appropriated, generally no. No new contracts can be awarded and if you need a federal worker to actually cut the check during the shutdown and that person is non essential, there’ll be no check. Essential contracts — military, for example — won’t be affected. A bridge project that’s underway probably won’t be affected.

If the government shuts down, who will bring me my daily supply of credit card offers?

No problem. The mail will still be delivered.

Will government websites keep running?

Some will if they’re operated by the IT departments of those functions deemed essential. Others will have not IT staff working. The Office of Management and Budget has said that people’s desires to see the activities of a federal agency are not grounds for keeping IT staff on the job.

What are some less obvious effects of the shutdown?

From the Boston Globe: “(In the 1995 shutdown) …the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking the spread of diseases such as AIDS and the flu; toxic waste removal at 609 sites was suspended. Work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases ceased, and investigations into delinquent child support cases were put on hold.”

What if I need a visa or passport?

In 1995, 20,000 to 30,000 foreign visa applications per day went unprocessed, as did an estimated total of 200,000 U.S. passport applications, according to PBS.

I work for the federal government. Will I have to go to work?

From Federal Computer Week: There are two types of shutdowns. In a “soft shutdown,” federal employees would come to work but could not do anything “productive,” that is, anything to carry out the central duties of the agency. They could clean up their desks.

A “hard shutdown” would mean employees are furloughed from work. Only those few exempt employees would come in.

The soft shutdown would only occur if the president believes there’s a chance for a rapid compromise with Congress. Hard shutdowns would signal a bleaker picture.

How many federal workers would be furloughed?

In the last shutdown — 1995 — about 800,000 government workers were furloughed. Back then, there were 2.92 million federal employees, excluding the military. Now, there are 2.84 million federal employees, excluding uniformed military.

Will I be paid during the furlough?

In the last shutdown, workers were paid retroactively. So the government doesn’t save on salaries during a shutdown. However, people who work under contract with the federal government would not likely be paid. At all.

There is a growing chorus, however, that is saying government workers shouldn’t be paid if they’re not going to work. That will probably be the first debate that will get all the attention after the shutdown crisis itself is solved.

What if I want to work unpaid?

You can’t. Federal law prohibits the government from accepting volunteer work.

Will soldiers be paid?

It’s a safe bet that even Washington understands the public relations nightmare that comes with not giving a soldier at war his check.

How long will it last?

If history is any guide, a few days. The longest shutdown lasted less about three weeks.

How much will the government save during the shutdown.

Nothing. Current estimates, which some consider low, suggest it could cost the government $100 million a day.

It sounds like the government isn’t really shutting down.

It doesn’t, really. But it will when it runs out of cash and it runs out of cash in mid-October and some congresspeople don’t want to raise the debt ceiling. Playing chicken now is easy — the government doesn’t really shut down.