With no deal in sight between the House, Senate and White House to pay the nation’s bills after midnight on Sept. 30, much of the federal government is set to run out of money 10 days from now, and large functions of the federal world could shut down Oct. 1.
What might this mean for you, your family and for the people who keep the government running day to day — even as Democrats and Republicans in Congress bicker over whether to stop funding President Barack Obama’s health care law and other fiscal issues they cannot seem to resolve?
Here are some basics of what a government shutdown might look like:
Q: What got us to this point, and who’s at fault if the government closes?
A: As with most things in Washington, naming who’s at fault would likely depend on your political persuasion.
Under a budget law passed 39 years ago, the House and Senate must approve 12 appropriations bills funding the federal government by Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year. It almost never happens.
In the past 17 years — in 10 of which Congress was controlled by Republicans, four by Democrats and two with mixed leadership in the chambers — Congress did not meet its statutory deadline for approving the spending bills.
This year’s confrontation is over the conservative Republican effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. On Friday, the House approved a stopgap bill to fund the government that would strip all funding for the law, large parts of which are set to take effect Oct. 1. The bill is considered to have no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Q: Is the government making preparations to close on Oct. 1?
A: Yes. The Obama administration told agencies this week to begin planning for a partial shutdown. A memo issued to agencies said that “prudent management requires that agencies be prepared for the possibility of a lapse.”
Federal managers must review which of their employees would be essential and required to come to work, and which would be nonessential and sent home during a shutdown.
Agencies are notifying their employees to expect some chaos: On Thursday, for example, State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy issued a memo making clear that a lapse in funding to keep the government running could mean that “a number of employees may be temporarily furloughed.”
Q: Does the entire government close? Will anyone patrol the borders? Will services disappear and benefits such as Social Security checks stop? What about services to veterans? Can I still see the panda cub at the National Zoo?
A: In any shutdown, the government does not stop functioning completely. By law, certain agencies must be allowed to operate with unsalaried employees. According to the Office of Management and Budget, those are employees who:
• Provide for national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property.
• Provide for benefit payments and the performance of obligations under no-year or multi-year contract or other funds remaining available for those purposes.
• Conduct essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property.
Managers would still have to decide how the work is executed, such as who stays on the job and who doesn’t. So while the panda cub and her zoo-mates will get fed, the zoo may not be open to visitors. The borders would still be patrolled. Veterans in hospitals would still receive care.
Government operations not directly paid for by the Treasury, the largest of which is the U.S. Postal Service, also would continue.
In a similar shutdown threat in 2011, the government said that of the roughly 2.1 million non-postal federal employees, all but about 800,000 would be kept on the job.
Q: What happens to Americans who are expecting checks for Social Security and other benefits?
A: These entitlement programs are considered mandatory spending, although payments could slow down if fewer federal employees must handle the work.
In the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, military veterans saw some health and financial services delayed. However, some services for veterans are funded by budgets that cover multiple years, which means the Treasury would have to pay for them.
Q: Would federal workers and contractors be paid?
A: According to OMB’s missive this week, employees who stay on the job would not get a paycheck at first. But they would be entitled to retroactive pay once the government is running again.
It gets murkier for nonessential employees. They would have to come to the office on the first day of a shutdown for up to half a day to secure files, fill out time and attendance forms and “otherwise make preparations to preserve their work.”
Whether they would recover lost pay is up to Congress and the White House. In past shutdowns, those employees were paid retroactively, but there is no guarantee. They could not substitute paid leave such as vacation time, or even work voluntarily. That’s against the law.
Q: Has the government shut down before?
A: Not in recent years. But the government closed six times between 1977 and 1980, and nine times between 1981 and 1996. Shutdowns in the 1970s and 1980s ranged from three to 17 days. A shutdown in November 1995 lasted five days. The most recent shutdown was from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996. That one lasted 21 days.
The threat has come up repeatedly in recent years as lawmakers and the administration have battled over fiscal policy.
Some say a shutdown now would have a bigger fallout than in 1995. Back then, several appropriations bills had been signed into law, including the two that funded the military, so most of the government stayed open. Many affected agencies operated at a reduced level during the three weeks by spending down savings from previous budgets.
But this time, no appropriations bills have been signed into law. That means the entire government would have no money to operate at midnight on Sept. 30.
Q: Weren’t a lot of federal employees furloughed this year?
A: Yes, almost half of them. The standoff on Capitol Hill is over funding for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, because Congress has not passed any regular appropriations.
The recent furloughs were the result of another fiscal showdown that set into motion automatic cuts known as sequestration. The largest agency, the Defense Department, furloughed about 650,000 civilian employees for six days.
Government workers are also in the third year of a pay freeze.
Q: Do the president and Congress continue working?
A: The president and political appointees are exempt from furloughs, although that’s not true for all White House staff. Lawmakers would continue working and would be responsible for deciding who on their staffs is essential.
In past shutdown threats, the judiciary has said it could continue operating for possibly two weeks with some fees and funds from previous years. Afterward, judges would have to go home.
Q: How does a shutdown end?
A: It’s up to Congress and the White House. No doubt there would be plenty of pressure from the public and workforce. There is no law setting a time limit.