What Stops If the Government Shuts Down


They are using the budget process, but it’s not really about the budget.

Stan Collender, national director of financial communications, Qorvis

If Congress does not come to agreement on a budget by Tuesday, the federal government will shut down.

A government shutdown would mean vacations to national parks canceled, FBI investigations stalled, and medical experiments abandoned. It could mean worse hardships for military families than they already endure.

Civilian military employees would be sent home. The people who process new Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid applications would stay home. A person who already gets Social Security would still get it, but a new 62- to 66-year-old would face a delay starting the program.

In Washington, D.C., it could mean trash piling up in the streets, and people unable to get marriage licenses, work permits, or other documents. D.C. is unique in the nation. Its local budget requires congressional appropriations. 

President Obama has the power to declare certain federal services essential and exempt them from a shutdown. Disaster aid is exempt. So is “Obamacare.”

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Service members would get IOUs, but still be required to report for duty. It’s common for soldiers, sailors, marines, and their families to live paycheck to paycheck. No check can mean an empty pantry, an empty gas tank, or a punitive late fee on an unpaid bill.

Reyna Levine of the National Press Foundation described a multiplier effect of losses from a shutdown. Workers on military bases or at big federal agencies stay home. The coffee shop nearby sells far fewer muffins. The bakery that supplies the muffins loses income, she said. That would happen across the country in big and small ways.

Stalled scientific research and law enforcement investigations represent losses impossible to quantify, according to Levine. 

Buildings would have to be closed safely, with climate control in place and security patrolling them, said Levine.

When the government shut down in 1995 and 1996, it cost Americans $1.5 billion dollars, according to Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan group.

During the 1995–1996 shutdowns, 7 million people were turned away from 368 closed national parks. That represents a cost as well as an inconvenience, according to George Condon, a White House correspondent for National Journal. “It’s hard to get reservations for these parks,” said Condon. For a popular park, people have to reserve a stay months in advance, take vacation time, and then drive the family there, he said. To find the gates closed is a real loss.

The beleaguered USPS will continue to deliver mail. It’s not part of the government. In addition, U.S. citizens’ travel plans may have to be changed if they do not yet have a U.S. passport as no one would be able to process a passport application. 

There are future losses. Government contractors would not get paid. It amounts to forcing them to front a loan to the government, according to Stan Collender, national director of financial communications at Qorvis. They could respond to that by insisting on higher interest rates or late fees in future contracts, he said.

This time around, unlike the 1990s, no one is saying they want a shutdown, yet no one is really negotiating, said Collender. “They are using the budget process, but it’s not really about the budget,” he said.



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