The U.S. Government almost went out of business last year -- no Social Security checks, disband the Army, ground all air traffic, that sort of thing -- because Congress couldn't decide how much money, if any, it should spend to find ways to get the sucking aphid to lay off the asparagus.
Thousands of feds got half paychecks as the government was technically broke since the Senate and House couldn't decide whether Zip codes should be five digits or nine.
Debate over a congressional pay raise (for 600 people) bottled up operations in many federal agencies, some of them rather important to the way we all live. It happened.
Uncle Sam is still living on borrowed time -- and money -- with many agencies due to run out of funds again the first week in June.
The problem is "riders," the nickname given to unrelated, often off-the-wall, items that are stuck on "must" appropriations bills Congress "must" but doesn't always approve on time.
The government can't spend money unless Congress says okay. If spending authority expires, the only functions feds can legally perform deal lwith closing down their offices and answering the phones to tell taxpayers they aren't supposed to be answering the phones. The number of rider-related budget delays is growing.
The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, says (respectfully) that Congress better watch it! GAO has studied congressional budget delays, and come up with a scenario for future shock that could make it as a made-for-TV-thriller, maybe "The Day Nothing Happened And Kept On Not Happening."
There have been "major" delays in approving funds for all or parts of government operations every year -- except 1976 -- since 1972. Last year there was a 16-hour gap before funds were approved, not enough time to bring the government to a halt but enough time to cause chaos in many agencies, delayed payments or half-checks to workers, and the life. In Washington, a government company town, the story was about payless paydays, fear of benefit losses, and how the congressional logjam affected federal operations here. It could be much worse, GAO says, in the future if the delays -- which were once unthinkable -- keep happening and if agencies are without funds for longer periods.
If the next budget flap lasts a while, this is what GAO says it might look like:
Day One -- Callers to government offices are told all nonemergency services are suspended pending congressional approval of budgets or spending authority.
Air traffic controllers get planes already in the air to their destinations.
But no new flights (there are 193,000 each day) are allowed. All incoming air traffic from Europe and overseas is turned back, Customs agents seal the borders and Coast Guard aircraft and ships (which handle 277 calls on a typical day) are kept home, except for life-threatening emergencies.
About 400,000 federal workers -- one in every five -- are furloughed.
Burials in all federal and VA cemeteries stop.
Day Seven -- By the end of the first week about 570,000 federal workers are jobless. Skeleton staff stay on to provide security and take care of health and hospital services. Social Security offices are closed (they handle 1,700 new beneficiaries each day). Black lung payments ($60 million a month) to 71,200 miners and survivors are stopped.
Treasury Department stops redeeming securties, Housing and Urban Development stalls the 25,000 housing assistance applications it gets each month from the poor.
Second Week -- Most government employes are on unemployment, military personnel are having paycheck problems, veterans benefits, civil service retirement checks, food stamps, child nutrition programs are suspended. Emergency medical treatment could continue (kidney machines at federal hospitals) but government lawyers doubt it would be legal, for instance, to feed or water monkeys and mice in federal cancer research labs.
It is unthinkable that Congress would let things go that long. But it was unthinkable, until recently, that Congress would be late, 85 percent of the time, doing what people elect it to do: help run, not stop, the government.