It has been 17 years since the federal government last faced a partial shutdown because Congress and the president couldn’t agree on a spending bill. A lot has changed in that time, leaving federal employees, citizens and even government decision-makers confused about what a shutdown would mean.
Every shutdown is different. The politics that cause them are different. Because of technology and structural overhauls, the way the government functions has changed since 1996. Much of what will happen is unknown.
Here’s what we do know about Tuesday’s looming shutdown:
1. What causes a shutdown? Under the Constitution, Congress must pass laws to spend money. If Congress can’t agree on a spending bill — or if, in the case of the Clinton-era shutdowns, the president vetoes it — the government does not have the legal authority to spend money.
2. What’s a continuing resolution? Congress used to spend money by passing a budget first, then 12 separate appropriations bills. That process has broken down. Congress uses a stopgap continuing resolution, or CR, that keeps spending at current levels for all or part of the year.
3. Why can’t Congress agree? The GOP-controlled House has passed a spending bill that maintains spending levels but does not provide funding to implement the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” The Democratic Senate insists that the program be fully funded and that Congress pass what they call a “clean” CR.
4. What is a “clean” CR? A continuing resolution without policy changes.
5. Why is this happening now? The government runs on a fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. Shutdowns can happen at other times of the year when Congress passes a partial-year spending bill.
6. Could government agencies ignore the shutdown? Under a federal law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it can be a felony to spend taxpayer money without an appropriation from Congress.
7. When will a shutdown begin? When the fiscal year ends at midnight today. Most federal workers would report to work Tuesday, but unless they’re deemed “essential,” they would work no more than four hours on shutdown-related activities before being furloughed.
8. When will the shutdown end? Immediately after the president signs a spending bill. As a practical matter, it could be noon the following day before most government offices that were shut down would reopen their doors.
9. How many times has the government shut down in the past? Since 1977, there have been 17 shutdowns, according to the Congressional Research Service.
10. How long do shutdowns usually last? Most last no more than three days. Some less than a day.
11. When was the longest shutdown in history? The longest was also the most recent: from Dec. 16, 1995, through Jan. 5, 1996.
12. Will this shutdown be different from those in the 1990s? Yes. When the 1995 shutdown started, Congress had already passed three of 13 appropriations bills. (They funded military construction, agriculture, and energy and water projects.) Also, more government services are automated.
THE DEBT LIMIT
13. What’s the difference between a shutdown and a debt crisis? In a shutdown, the government lacks the legal authority to spend money on non-essential services. In a debt crisis, the government is mandated to spend money — but doesn’t have the legal authority to borrow the money to spend it.
14. Are the two related? Only by timing, which is somewhat coincidental.
15. When will the government run out of borrowing authority? Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew says it could come as soon as Oct. 17.
16. Has the United States ever defaulted on its debt before? No.
17. If the nation hits the debt limit, will government shut down? That’s a big unknown question. The Treasury Department has said the most likely scenario is that it would delay payments, paying only those bills it can afford, using daily tax revenue.
18. Will I still get my mail? Yes. The U.S. Postal Service functions as an independent business unit.
19. Can I get a passport? Maybe, but hurry. The State Department says it has some funds outside the annual congressional appropriation. “Consular operations domestically and overseas will remain 100 percent operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations,” the department says.
20. Can I visit national parks? No. The National Park Service says day visitors will be told to leave immediately. Entrances will be shut.
21. What about campers already in the parks? They will be given two days to leave.
22. Will Washington museums be open? The Smithsonian, the National Zoo and the Holocaust Museum would be closed. Private museums, such as the Newseum, the Spy Museum and Mount Vernon, would stay open. Rule of thumb: If it’s usually free, it’s probably closed.
23. What about the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? The Kennedy Center does receive an annual appropriation from Congress, but also runs on ticket revenue and endowment funds. The center expects to stay open.
24. What about the National Archives? All archives and most presidential libraries will be closed, unless they’re operated by a private foundation — as all pre-Herbert Hoover presidential museums are. The Federal Records Center Program, which supports other agencies, would continue to operate because it uses a revolving fund.
25. Will the District of Columbia shut down? The district does not have complete autonomy and relies on an appropriation from Congress to operate. So during the shutdowns in the 1990s, trash went uncollected, and many city departments closed. In a departure from past shutdowns, Mayor Vincent Gray has informed the Office of Management and Budget that he has deemed all city employees “essential.” The district’s own attorney general has declared the mayor’s plan illegal.
26. Will the Patent and Trademark Office be open? Yes. The office can continue to operate off user fees and other funds for at least four weeks before having to close.
27. Will food safety inspections continue? Mostly. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would continue all safety-related activities. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration would continue inspections to the extent they’re paid by user fees, “but inability to investigate alleged violations could hamper corrective action in the long term and could have an immediate impact on members of industry.” The Food and Drug Administration would limit its activities but continue to monitor recalls and conduct investigations.
28. Will the government still release economic data? Probably. The weekly unemployment claims number would still come out, and the September jobs report, due out Friday, probably will, too. The Department of Commerce reasons that some of its data is so economically sensitive that delaying it risks that it will be leaked.
29. Will the government continue to enforce wage and hour laws? The laws will still be in effect, but the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division would suspend operations.
30. Will disaster response be affected? No. However, all “non-disaster” grants — such as state and local preparedness programs — would be postponed, the Department of Homeland Security says.
31. Will e-Verify be affected? Yes. The government system to allow companies to voluntarily check the legal work status of its employees would be shut down.
32. Will a shutdown put the brakes on implementing the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare?” No. The state-run exchanges for the uninsured would open as scheduled Tuesday. “The marketplaces will be open on Tuesday, no matter what, even if there is a government shutdown,” President Obama said Friday.
33. Why not? Like Social Security or Medicaid, Obamacare is a permanent entitlement that isn’t subject to annual funding by Congress. “Many of the core parts of the health care law are funded through mandatory appropriations and wouldn’t be affected,” Gary Cohen, the Health and Human Services Department official overseeing the health care rollout, said last week.
34. Will seniors continue to get Social Security benefits? Yes. Social Security is a mandatory spending program, and the people who send those checks would continue to work under a legal doctrine called “necessary implication.”
35. Can I apply for Social Security benefits, appeal a denial of benefits, change my address or sign up for direct deposit? Yes.
36. Can I get a new or replacement Social Security card, benefit verification statement or earnings record correction? No.
37. Will the government continue to pay unemployment benefits? Yes. The Employment and Training Administration “will continue to provide essential functions, as occurred during the shutdown of 1995,” according to the Department of Labor contingency plan.
38. Will I be able to get food stamps? Yes. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is funded through the Recovery Act and from funds that don’t expire for another year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
39. What about WIC? No money would be available to pay the administrative costs of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. But because it’s administered by states, there may be state funds available.
40. And the federal school lunch program? Schools are reimbursed for these costs on a monthly basis and are allowed to carry over funds from the previous fiscal year. The USDA expects most schools will be able to continue providing meals through October.
41. What will happen to veterans receiving compensation for service- or combat-related wounds and injuries? The Department of Veterans Affairs said if the shutdown continues into late October, it will run out of money for compensation and pension checks to more than 3.6 million veterans who rely on the money to support themselves.
42. Can I still get a federally backed loan? Maybe not. “Federal loans for rural communities, small business owners, families buying a home will be frozen,” Obama said Friday.
43. Does that mean I can’t get an FHA mortgage? No. The Federal Housing Administration says it “will endorse new loans under current multi-year appropriation authority in order to support the health and stability of the U.S. mortgage market.”
44. Does that mean I can’t get a VA mortgage? No. The Department of Veterans Affairs says loans are funded via user fees and should continue. However, during the last shutdown, “loan Guaranty certificates of eligibility and certificates of reasonable value were delayed.”
45. Will deceased veterans still be able to get a burial benefit? Yes. Burial benefits, headstones and death notices will still be available.
46. Will the IRS continue to collect taxes? Yes. All payments would be processed.
47. Will my refund be delayed? Possibly, especially if the taxpayer files a paper return.
48. What about taxpayer assistance? Walk-in assistance centers and telephone hotlines would be closed.
49. I’m being audited by the IRS. Will a shutdown affect me? Yes. The IRS will suspend all audit activities.
50. How many federal employees will be furloughed? The government has not given an official estimate.
51. Does anyone have a guess? J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that he expects the number will be 800,000 to 1 million, out of 2.1 million federal employees. That’s consistent with a USA TODAY analysis of 2011 shutdown contingency plans, which found that 59 percent of non-defense government employees would continue to work.
52. Why do some federal employees continue to work during a shutdown? The law — or at least, the Justice Department’s interpretation of it — contains exemptions for several classes of employees: The biggest exemption is for employees necessary to protect public health, safety or property. But property could include government data, ongoing research experiments or other intangibles. Political appointees are exempt because they cannot be placed on leave by law. Employees necessary for the president to carry out his constitutional responsibilities are exempt. Finally, employees whose salaries are paid from sources outside an annual spending bill can still get paid and report to work.
53. Who decides which employees work and which go home? Each agency is responsible for coming up with its own contingency plan, based on guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. Those plans are then sent to the White House for review.
54. Will the president be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The president’s $400,000 salary is mandatory spending. If furloughs begin to affect the government’s ability to process payroll, his paycheck could be delayed.
55. What about White House staff? Some high-ranking presidential appointees are exempt from the Annual and Sick Leave Act of 1951, which means they can essentially be made to work unpaid overtime. Also, any employee necessary for the president to carry out his constitutional duties is exempt.
56. And the president’s personal aides? The White House has 90 staffers who work in the residence. During a shutdown, 15 of them would stay on the job.
57. Will Congress continue to be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The 27th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1992, holds that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” Intended to prevent Congress from voting itself a raise, it also prohibits a pay cut.
58. What about congressional staff? Like other federal employees, they would be deemed essential or non-essential. Essential staff would include those necessary to carry out constitutional responsibilities, such as the parliamentarians, or for protection of members, such as the sergeants-at-arms. Staff of the appropriations committees may also be needed to write the law that would end the shutdown.
59. Will active-duty military be furloughed? No. All active-duty military are essential and should report as scheduled Tuesday, the Department of Defense said Friday.
60. Will civilian defense workers be furloughed? About half of them, or about 400,000, will be sent home, according to the Defense Department’s contingency plan.
61. Will active-duty military be paid during a shutdown? If a shutdown lasts longer than a week, the Pentagon might not be able to process its payroll in time for the Oct. 15 paychecks, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said Friday. The House passed a separate bill early Sunday that would appropriate money for active-duty and reserve paychecks regardless of the shutdown — and also pay for support services to make sure they get paid. That bill passed the House 422-0, but still must go to the Senate.
62. Can federal employees simply volunteer their services? No. A 19th-century federal law forbids volunteers because the government doesn’t want them filing claims for back pay after the shutdown is over, according to a legal analysis by Washington attorney Raymond Natter.
63. Will federal workers get paid retroactively, even if they didn’t work? Maybe. Congress granted retroactive pay to furloughed workers after shutdowns of the mid-1990s; that wouldn’t necessarily happen again. “I believe this time is going to be much different. This is a much different Congress than the 1995 Congress,” said Cox, the federal employee union president.
THE LONG TERM
64. How much money will a shutdown save taxpayers? Most likely, it wouldn’t. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says shutdowns cost money in terms of contingency planning, lost user fees and back pay. A government estimate after the shutdown in 1995-96 estimated its cost at $1.4 billion.
65. What effect will a shutdown have on the economy? Economists say even a short shutdown — of three or four days — would begin to shave decimal points off economic growth. A sustained shutdown of three or four weeks “would do significant economic damage,” economist Mark Zandi told USA TODAY.
66. What about the stock market? The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 3.7 percent during the 1995-96 government shutdown, according to S&P Capital IQ. Stocks quickly rebounded after the government got back to work, rising 10.5 percent the month after the shutdown ended.
Gregory Kortke writes for USA TODAY. Contributing: Adam Shell, Tim Mullaney in New York City; Gregg Zoroya in McLean, Va.; Raju Chebium of Gannett News Service; Rick Maze and Andrew Tilghman of Military Times; Surae Chinn of WUSA-TV in Washington; and the Associated Press.