WASHINGTON — The world won’t end if a dysfunctional Washington can’t find a way to pass a funding bill before this weekend.
That’s the truth about a government “shutdown”: The government doesn’t shut down.
It’s a crummy way to run a government, sure, but Social Security checks will still go out. Troops will remain at their posts. Doctors and hospitals will get their Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. In fact, virtually every essential government agency, like the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, will remain open. Transportation Security Administration officers will continue to man airport checkpoints.
But hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be forced off the job, and some services will go dark. Even after funding is restored, the political repercussions could be enduring.
Here’s a look at past shutdowns and what will happen if Congress fails to pass a short-term spending bill by midnight Friday:
Who works and who doesn’t?
In the case of a shutdown, fewer than half of the 2 million civilian federal workers subject to it would be forced off the job if the Trump administration follows the rules followed by previous Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That’s not counting about 500,000 Postal Service employees or 1.3 million uniformed military personnel who would be exempt.
The rules for who works and who doesn’t date back to the early 1980s and haven’t been significantly modified since. The Trump administration is relying mostly on guidance left over from Obama.
The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans’ health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual. The Social Security Administration would not only send out benefits but would continue to take applications — though replacements for lost Social Security cards would have to wait. The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would keep delivering the mail. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could continue to respond to last year’s spate of disaster.
The Washington Monument would be closed, as would museums along the National Mall. National parks would be closed to visitors and campers.
Do federal workers get paid?
While they can be kept on the job, federal workers can’t get paid for days worked during a lapse in funding. In the past, however, they have been repaid retroactively even if they were ordered to stay home.
Rush hour in downtown Washington, meanwhile, becomes a breeze. Tens of thousands of federal workers are off the roads.
How often did this happen in the past?
Way back in the day, shutdowns usually weren’t that big a deal. They happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each. During Reagan’s two terms, there were six shutdowns, typically just one or two days apiece. Deals got cut. Everybody moved on.
The last one was a 16-day partial shuttering of the government in 2013, which came as tea party conservatives, cheered on by outside groups like Heritage Action, demanded that language to block implementation of Obama’s health care law be added to a must-do funding bill.
What were the political repercussions?
In a 1995-96 political battle, Clinton bested Newt Gingrich and his band of budget-slashing conservatives, who were determined to use a shutdown to force Clinton to sign onto a balanced budget agreement. Republicans were saddled with the blame, but most Americans suffered relatively minor inconveniences like closed parks and delays in processing passport applications. The fight bolstered Clinton’s popularity and he sailed to re-election that November.
In 2013, the tea party Republicans forced the shutdown over the better judgment of GOP leaders like then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Republicans tried to fund the government piecemeal — for example, by forcing through legislation to ensure military service members got paid. But a broader effort faltered, and Republicans eventually backed down and supported a round of budget talks led by Paul Ryan, R-Wis., then chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Now, as House speaker himself, Ryan is struggling to head off a shutdown on his watch. “I think cool heads, hopefully, will prevail on this thing,” Ryan said Wednesday.
How many workers were affected in past shutdowns?
Under a precedent-setting memorandum by Reagan budget chief David Stockman, federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property.”
In 1995, that meant 571,000 Defense Department civilian employees, some 69 percent, remained at their post, while 258,000 other Pentagon workers were furloughed. Eighty-five percent of Veterans Administration employees went to work, as did 70 percent of Transportation Department workers. The latest estimates from the Justice Department are that 83 percent of its employees, some 95,000 people, would be deemed essential and stay on the job.
The 2013 shutdown resulted in the furlough of 850,000 employees, which cost the government 6.6 million days of work and more than $2.5 billion in lost productivity and pay and benefits for employees.