What Would a Government Shutdown Look Like?

BY Sarah Svoboda  February 23, 2011 at 11:57 AM EDT

“Shutdown” has been a buzzword in Washington this week, as tensions continue to rise in Congress over reaching a budgeting agreement for the rest of the fiscal year before the current one expires.

With the deadline for reaching an agreement just nine days away, it raises the question: What would a shutdown look like today? For those hoping to explore a national park or museum, those sites may be closed. Veterans could see their services curtailed. And, anyone who submits an application for a passport could find themselves having to postpone whatever foreign travel they were hoping to do this spring.

At least, these were some of the effects of last set of shutdowns that occurred in 1995-96. During this time, our government had two funding gaps, affecting the country in a number of ways. A Congressional Research Service Report lists some of the consequences of those most recent shutdowns:

– Over 1,000,000 federal employees were sent home during the combined 1995-96 shutdowns. Major federal work force furloughs occurred in of the Department of Education, the Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Social Security Administration, to name a few.

  • National museums and monuments closed down, resulting in an estimated loss of 2 million visitors.
  • 368 National Park Service sites also closed, losing 7 million visitors and around $14.2 million per day in tourism revenue.
  • 20,000-30,000 foreign visa applications per day went unprocessed, as did an estimated total of 200,000 U.S. passport applications.
  • Health, welfare, finance, and travel services for veterans were restricted.
  • New Medicare applicants were turned away, and new patients at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center were not accepted.
  • Furloughs at the Centers for Disease Control resulted in limited information regarding the spread of contagious diseases.
  • Over 3,500 bankruptcy cases were suspended.
  • Federal agencies managing over 20% over the total number of government contracts were affected.

In order to avoid the recurrence of such events, Democrats and Republicans must reach a spending agreement by March 4 — or deal with the repercussions of bringing these government operations to a halt.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected any talk of passing a short-term measure that would extend the present government funding levels. “I’m not going to move any kind of short-term [continuing resolution] at current levels,” Rep. Boehner told reporters last Thursday.

But that is exactly what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has proposed. Reid announced Tuesday he intends to introduce a 30-day funding bill at current spending levels when Congress returns next week, and he called on Boehner to engage in serious talks.

“It is time to drop the threats and ultimatums, and work together on a path forward,” Reid said in a statement. “I am asking Speaker Boehner to simply take the threat of a government shutdown off the table, and work with us to negotiate a responsible, long-term solution.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled Tuesday that Reid’s proposal was a non-starter for GOP lawmakers. “The American people spoke loud and clear: stop the Washington spending spree and bring down the debt. Yet Washington Democrats can’t find a single dime of federal spending to cut, insisting on the status quo, even for a short-term spending bill,” McConnell said in a statement.

The impasse leaves a $61 billion gap between Republicans and Democrats. That is the amount of the reductions passed by House Republicans last Saturday in their plan to fund the government over the next seven months – and makes the prospect of a shutdown more plausible by the day.

In the 1995-1996 shutdowns, President Clinton and congressional Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were unable to reach an agreement on lifting the federal debt ceiling, causing both a five and 21 day spending gap. Those shutdowns provide some helpful clues.

“It was a real behind-the-scenes struggle,” recalled Richard Norton Smith, Scholar-in-Residence of History and Public Policy at George Mason University. “It was a match up of the pragmatists versus the ideologues, with a much more defined party against party split than even today,” said Smith. The rise of the Tea Party has added another layer to the debate, with newly elected GOP lawmakers pushing party leaders for even deeper cuts than originally proposed, and making a compromise all the more difficult to reach.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe detailed some of the repercussions of the 1996 shutdown in a post last week.

“Over the course of more than 20 days, about 260,000 District-area federal employees stayed home, or reported for duty only to be sent packing…Agencies retroactively paid workers once the doors reopened, but many government contractors–paid separately by private employers- earned nothing during the shutdowns,” O’Keefe wrote.

Veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute echoes O’Keefe’s point about the secondary effects of a shutdown. “A shutdown doesn’t just affect those federal employees who are furloughed, it affects the thousands of government contractors that work with the federal government,” Ornstein said. Unlike their federally-employed counterparts, government contractors have no chance of recouping wages lost during a shutdown.

State-employed workers whose salaries are paid with federal dollars could also be affected. “A significant number of state jobs are funded by the federal government, so there is the threat that states might to lay off those people because their money isn’t coming in,” Ornstein noted.

Furthermore, states that rely on federal dollars to cope with mounting budget shortfalls would feel the cash crunch even more if a deal cannot be reached.

Perhaps the most striking difference between now and 15 years ago is the elevated post-9/11 security throughout the country. There are new national defense organizations that did not exist back then, such as the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration.

President Obama would have the discretion to keep certain “essential” government operations up and running, such as the military, Coast Guard, border patrol and other national security-related programs. In addition, the postal service would still deliver the mail, air traffic controllers would keep a watchful eye on the nation’s skies and runways, and federal prisons would remain staffed.

Still, the inconvenience caused by a government shutdown might not be as painful as the last time around. “We are more advanced in some areas now than we were 15 years ago,” Ornstein said. “Back then, for example, checks had to be mailed out to employees but now funds can be directly deposited to a laborer’s account.” That advancement in technology could also ease the hassle of delivering retroactive paychecks to the tens of thousands of government employees forced to take leave in the event of a shutdown. “It would be a disruption, but it might not be an enormous disruption,” he said.