Con­gress failed to agree on a spend­ing bill for the fis­cal year start­ing Octo­ber 1, 2013, result­ing in the first gov­ern­ment shut­down since 1995. Accord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice, this is the 18th time the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has shut down as a result of a fail­ure to agree on an annu­al appro­pri­a­tions bill. Most shut­downs have last­ed only a few hours or a few days. The most recent shut­down, in 1995, last­ed three weeks.

 

What happens when the federal government shuts down?

When the gov­ern­ment shuts down, fed­er­al agen­cies must gen­er­al­ly sus­pend oper­a­tions and fur­lough their employ­ees. How­ev­er, there are sig­nif­i­cant excep­tions for gov­ern­ment func­tions that pro­mote nation­al secu­ri­ty, or pro­tect human life and prop­er­ty. As a result, a shut­down does­n’t impact cer­tain essen­tial func­tions like the mil­i­tary, law enforce­ment, TSA, air traf­fic con­trol, bor­der patrol, emer­gency and dis­as­ter assis­tance, food safe­ty, for­eign embassies, pris­ons, and fed­er­al med­ical care (among oth­ers). A shut­down also does­n’t impact fed­er­al enti­tle­ment pro­grams (like Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare) that aren’t fund­ed by dis­cre­tionary annu­al appro­pri­a­tions. Fund­ing for these pro­grams is con­sid­ered manda­to­ry, because the leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing the ben­e­fit oblig­ates the gov­ern­ment to make pay­ment. So ben­e­fits under these pro­grams con­tin­ue unin­ter­rupt­ed, and the employ­ees who admin­is­ter those ben­e­fits are gen­er­al­ly exempt from fur­lough. Final­ly, some agen­cies are fund­ed by mul­ti­ple year appro­pri­a­tions. Even though these agen­cies don’t yet have any funds appro­pri­at­ed for the new fis­cal year, they may still have funds remain­ing from pri­or appro­pri­a­tions, which they can use to con­tin­ue oper­a­tions until those funds run out.

 

So what does a government shutdown mean to you?

 

What you can do during the shutdown:

  • Receive and send mail–the post office is an inde­pen­dent agency unaf­fect­ed by the bud­get process 
  • Buy insur­ance through one of the new health insur­ance Exchanges
  • Receive your Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare ben­e­fits, or apply for new ben­e­fits
  • Get a pass­port or visa–but only until the State Depart­men­t’s avail­able fund­ing runs out (dur­ing the 1995 shut­down, 200,000 U.S. appli­ca­tions for pass­ports went unprocessed)
  • Con­duct busi­ness with the Unit­ed States Patent and Trade­mark Office–but only until the USP­TO’s avail­able fund­ing runs out
  • Receive unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and food stamps
  • Get an FHA or VA mort­gage
  • Receive med­ical care at a vet­er­ans hos­pi­tal
  • Use the fed­er­al court system–but only for about 10 days

 

What you can’t do during the shutdown:

  • Stop pay­ing taxes–the IRS will con­tin­ue to process elec­tron­i­cal­ly sub­mit­ted tax returns, but if you’re being audit­ed, you’ll get a tem­po­rary reprieve
  • Get tax­pay­er assis­tance from the IRS
  • Get a small busi­ness loan
  • Go to a nation­al park, zoo, or museum–if you’re already overnight­ing in a nation­al park, you gen­er­al­ly have two days to leave
  • Get a pay­check, if you’re a fed­er­al employee–unless you’re the pres­i­dent, a mem­ber of Con­gress, or in the mil­i­tary; how­ev­er, in the past work­ers were paid retroac­tive­ly after a new appro­pri­a­tions bill was passed

If you need more infor­ma­tion, most gov­ern­ment agen­cies have post­ed their shut­down con­tin­gency plans on their web­sites.

 

And there’s more to come…

The shut­down is sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from anoth­er loom­ing crisis–the debt ceil­ing. Accord­ing to Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Jacob Lew, it’s antic­i­pat­ed that the Unit­ed States will run out of funds as soon as Octo­ber 17, and will default on its debts, unless Con­gress acts to raise the debt ceil­ing before then.

 

**The shut­down is sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from anoth­er loom­ing crisis–the debt ceil­ing. Accord­ing to Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Jacob Lew, it’s antic­i­pat­ed the Unit­ed States will run out of funds as soon as Octo­ber 17, and will default on its debts, unless Con­gress acts to raise the debt ceil­ing before then.