What might happen if federal government shuts down again

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 11:32 PM

If President Obama and congressional Republicans do not reach an agreement on how to fund the final seven months of the fiscal year, some military veterans might not receive benefits checks and other Americans would be unable to apply for Social Security. The State Department might not issue new passports, unemployment statistics would not publish as scheduled, museums and national parks would close, and worse - piles of elephant manure might pile up in a National Zoo parking lot because workers can't ship it away for composting.

Budget disagreements between Bill Clinton and Republicans prompted these incidents in 1995 and 1996, as federal agencies halted operations and stopped paying workers.

For more than 20 days, about 260,000 federal employees in the D.C. area stayed home, or reported for duty only to be sent packing hours later. Security guards roamed the halls forcing out workers who lingered, and some frustrated feds sought temporary jobs as bike messengers and servers at restaurants to pay holiday bills, according to Post reports from the time.

Agencies retroactively paid workers once the doors reopened, but many government contractors - paid separately by private employers - earned nothing during the shutdown. And congressional Democrats proposed last week that Obama and lawmakers also should not be paid during a shutdown.

Obama and congressional leaders must strike a deal by March 4 to keep the government running. Failure to pass a bill could cause an immediate stop to a wide range of federal services.

Congressional Republicans are hoping to cut billions of dollars in government spending to make good on pledges made during the midterm election campaign. Obama would veto plans that cut government spending too deeply, the White House said last week.

Numerous tea party groups have called on lawmakers to force a government shutdown, if necessary, but the GOP leadership has vowed not to go that far.

"We're not looking for a government shutdown. We want some real spending cuts," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Both Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said they support passage of a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funding. But "it should have some spending cuts," Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Federal agencies are beginning to instruct senior officials to prepare for a possible closure, ordering the cancellation of vacations or other personal commitments, according to agency sources not authorized to speak on the record.

Jacob J. Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, disputed those reports. "We're planning on reaching the kind of agreements that make it unnecessary to put the American people through a government shutdown. I don't want to either intentionally or unintentionally send any signals that we're planning to the contrary," he said last week.

Obama also warned against suggestions of a shutdown. "This is not an abstraction," he said at his news conference last week. "People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And it - that, also, would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery."

"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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