RSS
What's the big deal about a government shutdown?
Here's how you could be affected if the federal government runs out of money on Oct. 1
 
The mail will still get delivered, but the government won't be doing much else.
The mail will still get delivered, but the government won't be doing much else. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

It has been a long time since the U.S. has experienced a proper government shutdown. In early 1996, the last time Washington politics ground the federal government to a (partial) standstill, Bill Clinton was president, Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was Senate Majority Leader, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was House Speaker, and the internet was barely a thing.

The shutdown wasn't popular, but the nation survived. Gingrich's public image didn't fare as well. Clinton handily beat Dole in that November's election.

Today, the politics of another looming shutdown aren't clear — everybody assumes the Republicans will take the brunt of the anger again, but a new Pew poll suggests that maybe House Republicans and the Obama White House will share the blame fairly evenly. A CNN poll is more dire for the GOP: 51 percent would hold Republicans responsible for a shuttered government.

The mechanics of what will happen are pretty easy to predict, though. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a helpful, 20-page explainer with the details. Here's a look at what a government shutdown might mean on a practical level:

Federal workforce
If you're a federal employee, expect to either be furloughed without pay or, if you're deemed "essential" to keeping America safe and functioning, you'll work for IOUs until a new funding bill is approved and signed. In past shutdowns, the furloughed workers were paid retroactively after the shutdown ended, but there's no guarantee that would happen again. Retroactive pay would have to be approved by Congress and the White House.

President Obama and members of Congress would be among those working for IOUs — they would get paid eventually, after a new funding measure goes into effect — as would "essential" members of their staff. Same goes for uniformed military personnel, some crucial civilian Defense Department officials, air traffic controllers, border patrol agents, food safety inspectors, and, of course, NSA employees — "monitoring those emails and phone calls can't wait," quips Kelly Phillips Erb at Forbes.

Mail delivery
The U.S. Postal Service will stay open, since it doesn't rely on U.S. Treasury funds for its operations. As long as the shutdown doesn't last too long, mail delivery won't be affected. "Some postal employees would very likely face furlough, but it wouldn't be enough to completely close down the agency," says NPR's Adam Wollner.

Taxes
If you were hoping a government shutdown would mean a reprieve from the IRS, "think again," say David Simpson and Saeed Ahmed at CNN. "The Man would continue to collect taxes." The IRS would face furloughs, but they would mostly be among "the folks following the money," like agents and investigators, says Forbes's Erb. But "as a rule of thumb, most of the folks who handle money would be safe from the shutdown."

Social Security and Medicare
Social Security checks will still go out, and doctors will still get paid by Medicare and Medicaid. "However, if the government does not resolve the budget situation by Nov. 1, those entitlement program payments could be delayed by up to two weeks," says NPR's Wollner. A few days into the shutdown, the government would likely put a hold on issuing new Social Security cards or enrolling new Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

At the same time, a government shutdown won't achieve the goal of Republicans pushing this standoff: ObamaCare has its own source of funding, so it is largely immune from the shutdown. The law's pivotal health insurance exchanges will still start signing up people on Oct. 1, as scheduled.

This time could be different
All in all, the government shutdown doesn't seem too bad yet, conservatives argue. A so-called shutdown "would be neither catastrophic nor unprecedented," says the conservative Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky. If anything, he says, it will "pare down government services to those most essential for 'the safety of human life or the protection of property.'" That could save us some of "the hundreds of billions of dollars in the federal budget that are constantly squandered and wasted on frivolous, unnecessary, and unneeded programs," he adds.

People didn't feel that way during the three-week shutdown in December 1995 and January 1996. As Jonathan Bernstein notes in The American Prospect, congressional Republicans took a hit at the polls during that face-off with Clinton, but Clinton's approval ratings fell, too, from 51 percent to 42 percent. And there's reason to believe that this shutdown would be worse.

In the Clinton-Gingrich shutdown, "several appropriations bills had been signed into law, including the two that funded the military, so most of the government stayed open," say Lisa Rein and Eric Yoder at The Washington Post. This time, no appropriations bills have been passed. "That means the entire government would have no money to operate at midnight on Sept. 30."

Here's the more inconvenient side of government shutdown:

Shutting down the government is expensive
The Clinton-era shutdowns — including a six-day closure in November 1995 — cost the government $1.4 billion. Why are they so expensive? First of all, shutdowns mostly defer costs rather than cancel them: Workers are still paid and equipment is still repaired, just not while the government is on fiscal lockdown. Second, "federal agencies have to use up time, energy, and resources to plan for one," say CNN's Simpson and Ahmed. "Shutting down and then reopening the government also costs money."

Travel and tourism
There's also a financial hit from the closure of all national parks, museums, and monuments. In the 1995–96 shutdown, the 368 shuttered National Parks — including the Grand Canyon — kept away an estimated 7 million tourists and their $14.2 million in tourism dollars.

The shutdown also kept foreign tourists from entering the country, and U.S. tourists from flying abroad, says Forbes's Erb. "In 1995, 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas went unprocessed each day of the furlough and 200,000 U.S. applications for passports went unprocessed." The hit to the tourism industry, she adds, "was said to be acute."

Loans and gun permits
Furloughs at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives means that if you apply to get a license for any of those things, you'd better be prepared for a long wait. Same thing for businesses and homeowners applying for government-backed loans or mortgages.

Washington garbage
Congress has to approve not only a federal budget, but also the budget for Washington, D.C. "No budget for the city = no trash collection," say CNN's Simpson and Ahmed. If Congress can't get its act together, 500 tons of garbage will start piling up each week in the nation's capital. Maybe the stench will convince Congress that nobody wins in a government shutdown.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week