What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Shutdown

The Wall Street JournalWhat to Expect When You’re Expecting a Shutdown

European Pressphoto Agency U.S. Marines march in review during the POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., this month.

Originally published on Sept. 24 and subsequently updated.

As the U.S. nears an Oct. 1 deadline for a partial government shutdown, the Office of Management and Budget has directed federal agencies to prepare contingency plans should a shutdown occur. Here, we tell you what to expect from a partial temporary shutdown, drawing on agencies’ plans and information from the last time the government shut down in 1995 and 1996.

We will update this list as more information becomes available.

How will travel and transportation be affected?

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
An US Airways Airbus A320 airplane takes off from a runway at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Air traffic control is expected to continue, in addition to airport and airplane safety inspections.  All Federal Highway Administration activities will also continue.

According to the Department of Transportation’s 2011 contingency plan, the agency expected 17,870 of its then-58,011 employees to be furloughed.

Amtrak trains will continue to run.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, about 20,000-30,000 foreign applications for visas went unprocessed every day, and 200,000 U.S. applications for passports weren’t processed, according to the Congressional Research Service report. These delays reportedly cost U.S. tourist industries and airlines millions of dollars.

Will I be able to get a passport?

Travelers applying for passports and visas may face complications. In its 2011 plan, the Department of State said emergency passport services would continue to be provided, but passport offices would not accept new applications. Similarly, emergency visa services would continue, but basic visa issuance would be “severely curtailed,” the plan said.

Will national security be compromised?

Agency functions that protect national security and ensure human safety are exempt from the shutdown. Military operations, border security, coastal protection (including the Coast Guard), law enforcement, criminal investigations, counter-terrorism efforts and care of prisoners are all expected to continue. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Marshals Service will all continue to function. The Transportation Security Administration will continue to staff airports.

In its 2011 plan, the deputy secretary of defense said all military personnel would continue under normal status, but would not be paid until Congress made appropriations available.

The Pentagon released a memo to employees Monday warning that nonessential workers will be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. Pentagon officials are not permitted to comment on what qualifies an employee as essential.

Officials expressed concern about the shutdown’s impact. Attorney General Eric Holder said a government shutdown “would be something very bad” for federal law enforcement.

“We will do all that we can” if there is a shutdown, he said, but added: “We cannot do the job in the Justice Department the way we want to.”

Some areas of law enforcement could see a big impact. Civil litigation will be curtailed. In the 1995-96 shutdowns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms experienced delays in application processing. Recruitment and testing of federal law-enforcement officials was reportedly canceled, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents, according to the CRS report.

If a government workers are furloughed, will they get paid retroactively?

 Congress will determine whether furloughed employees are paid for the furlough period.

 Will I get my mail?

Yes. The U.S. Postal Service will continue to function as usual, a spokeswoman said.

 What happens to Social Security and other benefits?

Social Security payments will continue to go out, and the administration is expected to continue taking applications for benefits, as outlined in its 2011 contingency plan. In that plan, the agency said it would furlough 20,708 of its then-66,841 workers.

In the first shutdown in 1995, the agency furloughed 93% of its employees and didn’t accept new applications. But in the second shutdown, in 1996, it kept 50,000 workers to help process new applications.

Medicare and Medicaid payments are also expected to continue, although the programs could encounter difficulty if the shutdown stretches into weeks.

Is public health endangered?

Food and Drugs: The Food and Drug Administration is expected to continue its review of imports into the U.S., according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2011 report.

Inspection of meat, poultry and egg products is expected to continue, as these functions fall under the category of human safety. In the 1995-96 shutdowns, HHS furloughed 78% of its employees.

Disease: In previous shutdowns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance, which could be particularly problematic as flu season approaches.

Medical care of inpatients and emergency outpatient care will continue.

The National Institutes of Health clinical center didn’t accept new patients into clinical research, and calls placed to NIH’s disease hotline were not answered, according to the CRS report. The NIH clinical center will likely continue to provide direct medical services, HHS’s 2011 report indicates. HHS said it would furlough 62% of its employees in its 2011 contingency plan.

Obamacare: The Affordable Care Act will continue to be funded.

Other: Handling of hazardous waste, disaster assistance and power grid maintenance will continue.

Will I still be able to get weather forecasts?

Yes. Weather forecasting and alerts are deemed essential services and would continue in the event of a shutdown.

How will Washington, D.C., residents be affected?

Mayor Vincent Gray wrote a letter Wednesday to the director of the OMB declaring all D.C. government operations essential and therefore exempt from a shutdown. In a statement released Wednesday, he explained his decision: “It is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people … cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval.” He added, “Congress can’t even get its own fiscal house in order; they should be taking lessons from us rather than imposing needless suffering on us.”

The letter represents a change in the mayor’s tune from earlier this week, when he released the city’s contingency plan, which stated essential services — law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, public schools, and a limited number of Health and Human Services functions – would continue during a shutdown, but other activities would be suspended.

According to the plan, trash collection would be suspended until one week after shutdown, and street sanitation would be suspended, Department of Motor Vehicles offices and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs closed, and routine maintenance and repairs by the Department of Transportation halted until the conclusion of the shutdown. Emergency transportation repairs would continue. All D.C. libraries would be closed.

In a 2011 memo, D.C.’s Department of Public Works said parking enforcement would be suspended until the conclusion of the shutdown. DPW officials didn’t immediately return requests for comment on whether this would be the case again.

For more specific information by agency, please consult the alphabetized list below.

COMMODITY FUTURES TRADING COMMISSION: CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton wrote a letter to the chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry in September to ask that an amendment be passed that would continue full funding of the CFTC even if a shutdown were to occur. In the letter, he said the shutdown’s impact on the commission would be “extreme” and “to the detriment of all market participants.

Mr. Chilton released a statement in mid-September warning that a shutdown would be “grave news for consumers,” as regulators would be “handcuffed in our ability to go after crooks.” In its 2011 plan, the CFTC said it would furlough all employees except a limited number who would perform a “bare minimum level of oversight and surveillance.”

 DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE: Commerce is expected to continue weather forecasting, export enforcement, National Technical Information Service activity, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office services, according to its 2011 plan. Significant amounts of data collection would be halted, including activity by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Economic Development Administration, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, Minority Business Development Administration, and most research at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

 DEPARTMENT OF LABOR: The Labor Department  is expected to continue responding to workplace injury and child labor incidents. The Employee Benefits Security Administration will continue to function. Labor will also continue mine inspections, workplace safety inspections, and training efforts.

 ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY: EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency is studying plans made for prior shutdowns, but in general terms, the lack of a budget will force furloughs.

“It will mean that EPA effectively shuts down. The vast majority of people at EPA will not be working,” she said Monday, adding that the agency will only maintain “emergency” capabilities.

 GOVERNMENT WORKERS: In 1995, the shutdown lasted five full days and resulted in 800,000 federal employees being furloughed, according to a CRS report. In 1996, it was estimated that 284,000 federal workers were furloughed, and 475,000 federal employees worked under “non-pay” status, meaning that they received back pay once the shutdown concluded.

Many federal employees will be exempted from furloughs, including President Obama, Congress, and presidential appointees.

 JUDICIARY: The judiciary will remain “open for business” for about 10 business days after a shutdown begins and would reassess its situation around Oct. 15, according to a statement released Thursday. All proceedings and deadlines would remain as scheduled, and the electronic filing system for documents with courts would remain operational.

The CRS report estimated that beyond the 10-day operational period, judges would be expected to continue to work, as would essential staff members. Supreme Court Justices, U.S. magistrate judges, and U.S. bankruptcy judges would continue to be paid in the absence of funding, while other judges and staff members would not be paid until a shutdown concluded, according to the report.

NATIONAL PARKS: In the last shutdowns, 368 National Park Service sites were closed, with a loss of 7 million visitors, according to the CRS report. National museums and monuments were also closed, resulting in the loss of an estimated 2 million visitors.

 SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION: The SEC is expected to continue emergency law enforcement and litigation, market monitoring and surveillance, and internal functions, in addition to its filing systems. Its 2011 plan indicated it would cease non-urgent litigation, processing of registration applications, non-emergency rulemaking, oversight of self-regulatory organizations, and all activity by the Office of the Inspector General.

 SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, NATIONAL ZOO: Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo will both close if there’s a shutdown, a spokeswoman said.

 VETERANS AFFAIRS: The agency said in its 2011 plan that 97% of its workers would be exempted from the shutdown and most services would continue. The agency revised its plans from the 1995-96 shutdowns, when multiple services – including health, welfare, finance and travel – were curtailed, according to the CRS report.



Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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