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What Would Happen if the Government Actually Shut Down?

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Inconvenient and expensive sure, but not the end of the world.

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The threatened government shutdown has been temporarily staved off, as the Senate is voting to send a GOP-drafted measure that will cut $4 billion in spending and keep the government open for another two weeks.

"The president is encouraged by the progress Congress is making towards a short-term agreement," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "Moving forward, the focus needs to be on both sides finding common ground in order to reach a long-term solution that removes the kind of uncertainty that can hurt the economy and job creation."

One Washington think-tanker tells Minyanville that this two-week extension is nothing more than a short delay before the next round of cuts, as the Democrats seem to be willing to accept anything handed to them right now.

However, a shutdown doesn't mean the streetlights go out all of a sudden and the police go home.

"As the part of the executive branch charged with overseeing the management of the federal government, OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course – and so are all the agencies," said Kenneth Baer, OMB communications director, in a statement. "In fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and they routinely update them. All of this is besides the point since, as the congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown."


For all the fear over what would happen if there actually had been a shutdown (and the inevitable fear that there will be one coming in 14 days) consider that there have been 15 government shutdowns since the Carter administration. So what would actually happen if Washington were to lock up and go home?

The most recent government shutdowns occurred in FY96. Here's what happened, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service:

The first, which lasted five full days between November 13-19, 1995, resulted in the furlough of an estimated 800,000 federal employees. It was caused by the expiration of a continuing resolution agreed to on September 30, 1995 (P.L. 104-31), and by President Clinton's veto of a second continuing resolution and a debt limit extension bill. The second FY1996 partial shutdown of the federal government, and the longest in history, lasted 21 full days between December 15, 1995, and January 6, 1996. The shutdown was triggered by the expiration of a continuing funding resolution enacted on November 20, 1995 (P.L. 104-56), which funded the government through December 15, 1995. On January 2, 1996, the estimate of furloughed federal employees was 284,000. Another 475,000 excepted federal employees continued to work in nonpay status.


The federal employees that kept working were responsible for what the Office of Management and Budget describes as "excepted activities":

"Beginning [on the first day of the appropriations hiatus], agencies may continue activities otherwise authorized by law, those that protect life and property and those necessary to begin phasedown of other activities. Primary examples of activities agencies may continue are those which may be found under applicable statutes to:

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 multi-year 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.

"You should maintain the staff and support services necessary to continue these essential functions."

Those were the effects on federal employees. The effects on the public were:

Health. New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical center; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance; hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites reportedly stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home.

Law Enforcement and Public Safety. Delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended; cancellation of the recruitment and testing of federal law-enforcement officials reportedly occurred, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents; and delinquent child-support cases were delayed.

Parks, Museums, and Monuments. Closure of 368 National Park Service sites (loss of 7 million visitors) reportedly occurred, with loss of tourism revenues to local communities; and closure of national museums and monuments (reportedly with an estimated loss of 2 million visitors) occurred.

Visas and Passports. Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas reportedly went unprocessed each day; 200,000 US applications for passports reportedly went unprocessed; and US tourist industries and airlines reportedly sustained millions of dollars in losses.

American Veterans. Multiple services were curtailed, ranging from health and welfare to finance and travel.

Federal Contractors. Of $18 billion in Washington, DC, area contracts, $3.7 billion (over 20%) reportedly were affected adversely by the funding lapse; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was unable to issue a new standard for lights and lamps that was scheduled to be effective January 1, 1996, possibly resulting in delayed product delivery and lost sales; and employees of federal contractors reportedly were furloughed without pay.

Of course, shutdown or not, feelings were bound to get hurt. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that workers were upset about the labels placed upon them by administrators creating plans as to who would be considered "mission-critical" or not.

"That is causing a lot of consternation," she said." Even the terms -- 'essential,' 'non-essential' -- that mean different things to different people. Some people are highly offended that they are considered non-essential. No matter what words you use, you still have to put a definition around it."

Kelley found herself at an impasse.

"I have not come up with two words that will not offend somebody," she explained. "People are talking about 'exempt,' 'non-exempt.' That raises a whole different set of issues."

Of course, she now has another two weeks to figure it out.

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