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7 ‘Essential’ Things You Should Know About a Government Shutdown

Now that Congress has failed to come to a compromise on a spending bill and the government is shutting down, it’s all the more important to know what that means exactly, and how it will affect you. Here are 7 things you should know about the brave new world we’re living in.


1. Many government employees will continue to work, namely those considered “essential.”

While many government employees will be furloughed starting next week if the government shuts down, “essential” employees will continue working. Those include members of the military, border control agents, air traffic controllers, the FBI and the TSA–basically anyone who deals with issues of national security or generally keeping people alive.

According to USA Today, an “estimated 59% of non-defense federal employees would be exempt from the shutdown and would go to work as usual.” However, those essential employees would not get paid during the shutdown, but would receive retroactive paychecks once business-as-usual resumed.

That would include President Obama and members of Congress–their paychecks are safe–but many in their staffs could be sent home until operations resume.

2. Active military personnel and other “essential” federal employees will get paid, just not right away. But everyone else…

As Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) said on the floor of the House this past week while arguing against a government shutdown, “All military personnel will continue to serve and accrue pay but will not actually be paid until appropriations are available.” This is true for the “essential” employees described above, but may not be true for those deemed “nonessential.”

The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein writes:

While there is no law requiring that nonessential employees be compensated if they are ordered off the job, Congress has in the past voted to reimburse their losses once shutdowns ended.

But this go-round could be different. The bitterly divided Congress includes many lawmakers who are unsympathetic to the plight of federal workers and could be loath to help them recoup their money.

3. Social Security checks and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements will continue to be sent out.

Just because the government shuts down doesn’t mean entitlements stop. Social Security checks Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements will continue as scheduled. And, because it’s not directly funded by the Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Service will continue to deliver those checks uninterrupted.

4. If you’re planning a vacation, avoid national parks, zoos and museums.

During a government shutdown, all national parks, zoos and museums will be closed to the public (guess those aren’t considered “essential.”) In Washington, D.C. that would include all of the various federal sites and monuments that millions of people visit every year.

And, if you think government shutdown time might a good chance to travel abroad, make sure your passport is up to date, because there won’t be anyone to process those applications.

5. Yes, it has happened before. And it wasn’t pretty.

The last time the United State federal government shut down it lasted three weeks, from from December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996. Of course, back then it was House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican-controlled House leading the charge against President Bill Clinton’s domestic agenda.

Over the course of those tree weeks, 284,000 federal workers were furloughed, and around 475,000 essential employees went without a paycheck, though they were later reimbursed.

President Clinton’s approval ratings dropped sharply during the shutdown, but after it ended they rose higher than where they had been before. That fall, the Republicans had a net loss of eight seats in the House and Clinton won re-election.

6. Americans are slightly more likely to blame Republicans than President Obama for a government shutdown.

According to a Pew Research Poll conducted September 19-22, 39% of Americans would blame Republicans, 36% would blame the Obama Administration and 17% would blame both. A similar poll taken during the Clinton Administration showed a higher inclination to blame the GOP.

7. Even of the government shuts down, Obamacare is full steam ahead.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff reported this week that while the fight over Obamacare could cause the government shutdown, it won’t actually stop it. She writes:

The Affordable Care Act could actually function during a stoppage in federal funding remarkably well. The law’s biggest programs, like the new online marketplaces and health insurance subsidies, would by-and-large move forward without much hindrance at all…

This largely has to do with how the big pieces of Obamacare are funded. The law uses mandatory funds for its really big programs. That includes the new online marketplaces, known as exchanges, where uninsured people will be able to shop for coverage. The Medicaid expansion is funded with mandatory funding, as are the billions in federal tax credits to help with purchasing coverage.

Those mandatory funds were appropriated in the Affordable Care Act and, without repealing Obamacare, legislators cannot touch them. Even in the face of a government shutdown, this is the spending that sticks around.

All in all, a government shutdown would be an unnecessary hardship for furloughed federal workers and would reflect poorly on both Congress and the president. On the bright side, our government has clearly figured out ways to “shut down” and keep functioning at the same time. It’s not something anyone should want to see take place, but unless some degree of compromise occurs within the next seven days, it’s exactly what will happen.

[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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