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What might happen if federal government shuts down again

Federal workers protested outside the State Department in 1996. Managers decided which "essential" employees could work and who was "nonessential" - about 260,000 in the District.
Federal workers protested outside the State Department in 1996. Managers decided which "essential" employees could work and who was "nonessential" - about 260,000 in the District. (AP)

"It is interesting to see this come up again," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents thousands of the government's career managers. "It seems the last shutdowns didn't leave a negative enough impression on Americans if lawmakers are entertaining the thought of them once again."

Some managers recalled awkwardly deciding in 1995 which "essential" employees could work through the impasse and which "nonessential" personnel had to go home.

"The main impact was a vast amount of work associated with building shutdown plans and determining exactly who was and wasn't essential, and all the morale issues associated with the fear of impending implementation of those plans," said one SEA member who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. "I worked hard to get as many as possible of our then-1,200 or so employees deemed essential as I could, and that helped with morale."

Even if nonessential workers wanted to work without pay, they could face fines of up to $5,000 or up to two years in prison for violating a federal law that prohibits agencies from accepting volunteer labor.

Any new shutdown won't be the same as previous ones, said Stan Collander, a longtime budget analyst.

"Instead of checks being mailed, they're now transferred electronically. But you've also got other things that didn't exist before, like Homeland Security," he said. "There would have to be some reevaluation from last time."

Stores and restaurants near federal buildings relying on daytime foot traffic would suffer, and Metrorail revenue would plummet from lower ridership.

Government contracting firms are already preparing for potential disruptions by meeting to determine the potential financial impact, says Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents hundreds of midsize contracting firms.

"We want our folks to be as prepared as possible," Soloway said. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it's not outside the realm of possibility, either, so we can't ignore it."

Calculating potential savings from a shutdown are difficult, primarily because agencies historically pay workers back for time lost and might spend more to compensate for lost productivity, according to Post reports from the period.

Cities and states relying on federal funds would also have to spend unavailable cash. During the November 1995 shutdown, the District saved about $1.2 million daily by keeping some offices closed, but concurrently spent $4.4 million to cover the salaries of 26,000 employees usually paid with federal funds. At the same time, Maryland's state government spent $1.4 million a day to cover the salaries of 9,680 state workers also paid with federal dollars.

Obama would be given wide discretion to determine what to keep open and it's likely many employees of the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Veterans Affairs would stay on the job to keep national security and defense concerns running smoothly. In 1995, Clinton signed a special appropriations bill that kept 12,000 Agriculture Department workers on the job.

Other self-funding agencies would also open for business. The U.S. Mint, which finances its operations through a special fund, would still produce coins, and neither snow nor rain nor threat of shutdown would keep postal workers from their appointed rounds.

And even if the waste piled up in the parking lot, it's likely zoo workers would feed and care for the animals, just as they did the last time.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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