If members of Congress are unable to agree on an appropriations bill by the end of the day, the government will partially shutdown at 12 a.m. Tuesday morning for the first time in 17 years. Congress came close to a shutdown two years ago, but passed an 11th hour budget that significantly cut federal spending. While the politics of congressional stalemates constantly change, the effects of a government shutdown are somewhat predictable.
Social Security Payments
Finding for Social Security is considered mandatory, so beneficiaries should not worry about whether or not they are going to receive their checks in the mail. What is not guaranteed, though, are paychecks for Social Security employees who process benefits. Social Security checks went out during the 2011 shutdown, despite claims from President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid they would not. However, the employee shortage will likely result in processing delays. Social Security administrators, 17 years ago, wound up recalling employees to help with the backlog of new applicants. SSA field offices will still take applications for benefits, appeals requests and payee changes, but those seeking a benefit verification statement, a replacement Social Security card or an earnings record update will be out of luck.
Federal employees are deemed either "essential" or "non-essential" during a government shutdown. Transportation Security Administration employees fall into the former group, so those looking to travel will still be able to wait through exhaustive airport security lines. So are air traffic controllers, so planes likely will still fly during a shutdown. Applying for a passport, however, could be tricky. During the last shutdown, nearly 200,000 passport applications went unprocessed. The State Department's memo in preparation for a possible shutdown in 2011 states "all passport offices will be closed for the acceptance of new applications," though domestic passport staff will remain on board to process expedited applications already in the system.
Public institutions such as the Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo will close their doors. The National Park Service's Dec. 2011 contingency plan states all park concession facilities and commercial visitor services will shut down after a 36-hour notification period. Overnight visitors will have two days to make alternative arrangements and leave the parks. Essential employees will stick around to respond to emergencies regarding the safety of human life and property protection. Smithsonian and National Park employees responsible for protecting property and providing emergency care, including animal caretakers at the National Zoo, are exempt from the furlough.
The Internal Revenue Service will continue to process payments through a government shutdown, according to its 2014 contingency plan. Individuals currently being audited by the IRS may get a momentary breath of fresh air as the agency suspends all audit functions. On the other hand, those looking for assistance in filing their tax reforms are not so lucky, as the IRS will suspend taxpayer services such as its call centers.
Medicare/Veterans Affair Care
Much like Social Security, funding for Medicare and Veterans Affairs are mandatory and are not subjected to congressional appropriation. However, employees responsible for processing applications are not expected in a shutdown. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated 62 percent of its 76,000 employees would have stopped working by the second day of a shutdown in April 2011.
Unlike most federal entities, the Judiciary will not shut down immediately following the continuing resolution. According to a Sept. 24 memo from U.S. District Judge John Bates, the Judiciary will be able to continue operations for 10 business days through Oct. 15, utilizing reserve funds to pay judges, court and Federal Defender Office employees. Once this period ends, individual courts and Federal Defender Offices will determine which employees should be exempted from the furlough, though Bates suggested jury trials should continue as necessary.
The Department of Health and Human Services will furlough 52 percent of its employees in the event of a shutdown. A lack of appropriations will severely limit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ability to respond to outbreak investigations. National Institutes of Health employees would continue to treat current Clinical Center patients and provide animal care services, though new patients will be locked out of clinical research.
Federal Employees and Contractors
Though Congress voted to pay back federal employees who were furloughed in 1995 and 1996, back pay is not guaranteed during a shutdown. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has estimated furloughs will affect between 800,000 and 1 million employees. The possibility of back pay for government contractors is even more uncertain. Paying federal employees without an appropriation from Congress is considered a felony under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which also barrs workers from volunteering their services.
Obama was fairly direct Friday when he said "Federal loans for rural communities, small business owners, families buying a home will be frozen." The Office of Single Family Housing will "endorse new loans under current multi-year appropriation authority in order to support the health and stability of the U.S. mortgage market." Without a proper appropriation from Congress, the Federal Housing Administration will not be able to process mortgage requests during the shutdown.
Things That Will Stay the Same
While about half of the civilian defense workers will be furloughed, all active-duty troops will continue to work next week regardless of congressional action or inaction. The U.S. Postal Service will also continue to deliver mail, as the agency is independent from the federal government.