Air traffic controllers guide planes in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. Air traffic controllers would be exempt from a shutdown order. (Heather Wines / Gannett)
President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress say they want to avoid a government shutdown, even if some in their ranks are predicting disagreements over budget cuts could come to that.
The memories of losing a public relations fight to President Clinton in the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 still haunt Republicans. And Obama has warned that a shutdown could harm the economic recovery.
Q: How likely is a shutdown?
A: Possible, but still avoidable. Some newly elected tea party Republicans are itching to show they are serious about cutting spending by opposing resolutions to temporarily fund the government and raise the debt limit. But unlike 1995 and 1996, when the government shut down for 27 days over two periods, political leaders now seem wary of anything that smacks of political chicken.
A: For both sides, the stakes are much higher now. The country is struggling to come out of a much deeper recession than in the mid-1990s, and the public is concerned about the nation's mounting debt.
"People should be careful about being too loose in terms of talking about a government shutdown, because ... this is not an abstraction," Obama said. "People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And it ... would also have an adverse effect on our economic recovery. It would be destabilizing at a time when, I think, everybody is hopeful that we can start growing this economy quicker."
Republican pollster David Winston, who advises House Speaker John Boehner, said a shutdown "is not even a thought process at this point. The '95 lesson is something that is very much learned by everybody."
But rhetoric on both sides heated up late last week, with Boehner declaring that Republicans were serious about cutting this year's budget, a declaration that Democrats took as a threat to shut down the government if the GOP didn't get substantial reductions.
Q: When could it happen?
A: As early as March 4, when a temporary measure to keep funding the government expires. Another showdown could come later this spring, probably in May, when Congress will confront having to raise the national debt limit.
Q: What happens in a government shutdown?
A: Contrary to the description, not everything stops. According to the Congressional Budget Office, members of Congress, the president, presidential employees, some legislative branch employees, and "excepted" federal employees stay on the job. Turns out the latter category can register in the tens of thousands.
The Office of Management and Budget provides agencies with instructions on how to prepare for and handle a "funding gap." Agency heads are required to designate essential personnel and services. Excepted employees, CBO says, are those in charge of "performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, involved in the orderly suspension of agency operations, or performing other functions exempted from the furlough."
Q: What are examples of "excepted" federal employees?
A: Military and national security personnel, air traffic controllers, border and coastal protection personnel, law enforcement officers, emergency and disaster assistance workers, federal prison employees, people running federal power grids, and employees of financial arms like the IRS and Treasury Department. However, not all employees of all these branches would be likely to remain on the job.
Q: What happened in '95 and '96?
A: Some 800,000 federal employees were furloughed for six days in November 1995. During a 21-day shutdown in December-January 1996, about 284,000 were furloughed, with another 475,000 working in "non-pay" situations, meaning workers got back pay when the shutdown ended.
Q: Would things that people depend on, like Social Security checks, be interrupted?
A: That depends on the length of a shutdown. In '95 and '96, according to CBO, the Social Security Administration initially furloughed more than 61,000 employees, but claimed it had enough funds to keep 4,780 on the job sending out checks. But there were not enough staff members to answer telephone calls from customers needing a new Social Security card or to change an address, and SSA kept more employees on the payroll during the second shutdown.
Roughly 20,000 to 30,000 foreign visa applications went unprocessed each day, and 200,000 visa applications by Americans were held up. New patients were not accepted in clinical research at the National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control's disease hotline rang unanswered, and delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives applications. Work on 3,500 federal bankruptcy cases was put off, and the hiring of 400 new federal border agents was delayed. An estimated $3 billion in foreign exports was held up at ports.
One of the biggest symbolic impacts came when 368 National Park Service sites were closed, resulting in the loss of revenue from an estimated 7 million park visitors. News stories at the time quoted angry vacationers unable to get into federal parks on trips they had planned for months.
Chuck Raasch reports for Gannett News Service.