(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Updated 1:51 p.m. ET

As many as 600,000 federal employees could be furloughed in the coming days if Congress fails to pass a spending measure by midnight Friday, and dozens of federal agencies began telling workers Thursday whether or not they would need to work during a spending impasse.

Though Senate leaders Thursday morning showed a new conciliatory tone and said they would work through the day to reach an agreement, there was still no early sign of a definitive deal.

“There’s no reason the government should shut down over this, and I expect all of us to do whatever is necessary to do the people’s business and make sure it’s done by the end of the year,” President Obama said at a White House event.

In an early sign of what to expect, senior administration officials said hundreds of thousands of employees across the government could be ordered home if a shutdown begins Friday night, working at the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Treasury and Veterans Affairs and a host of regulatory agencies. (See a full list below.)

The Smithsonian Institution said its museums and the National Zoo would remain open this weekend because it has enough money left over from fiscal 2011 to continue operations.

“We can cover the staffing for the weekend and our shops will remain open too, which is good for holiday shopping,” spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said in an e-mail.

But if a shutdown pervades through Monday, “then we will close,” she said.

Several federal offices would be exempt from a shutdown because their budgets were approved last month. (See the full list below.)

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union representing more than 150,000 federal workers, said the Obama administration was prudent to plan ahead.

“These repeated shutdown scenarios are inexcusable and can be blamed directly on the unwillingness of Republican leaders to lead and seek reasonable compromises,” Kelley said late Wednesday.

“Middle-class federal employees should not be burdened with funding tax cuts for other working Americans when they have already been under a two-year pay freeze,” she added in a statement to reporters. “Once again, this time during the holiday season, federal employees face uncertainty about whether they will have a paycheck, whether their pay will be frozen into the future, and whether their retirement contributions will be increased.”

Indeed the holiday season might complicate any shutdown of federal agencies: With Christmas and Hanukkah fast approaching, many employees may already be planning a holiday break.

And what about other aspects of a government shutdown? Read on for some answers:

Are shutdowns common?

Not in recent years. Six shutdowns occurred between fiscal 1977 and fiscal 1980. An additional nine occurred between fiscal 1981 and fiscal 1996. The most recent shutdown stretched from mid-December 1995 until early January 1996.

They may just seem common because the threat has been raised repeatedly this year. Early in the year, Congress needed to finish agency budgets for fiscal 2011, which continued through September, because during 2010, it had passed funding for only the first six months of the year. At the time, a series of short-term extensions were enacted to prevent a large-scale shutdown.

The threat also arose during the summer during the debt ceiling negotiations and again in the fall because budgets hadn’t been enacted for the current fiscal year. There have been several short-term extensions, the latest of which runs through Friday.

How long do shutdowns normally last?

Shutdowns in the 1970s and 1980s ranged from three days to 17 days, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). A five-day shutdown occurred in November 1995, and a shutdown stretching from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996 lasted 21 days — the longest in modern history.

If a shutdown occurs, what would stay open, and who would have to work?

Federal agencies must determine which functions would continue and who would keep working. An agency would designate some personnel “essential” (or “emergency” and “excepted,” as OMB officially calls them) and others “non-essential” (or “non-excepted”). According to official guidance issued in April, agencies should continue any functions providing for national security, critical foreign relations and the safety of life and property.

Which agencies and departments would continue operating during a partial shutdown?



Housing and Urban Development


Some parts of State Dept. (multi-year appropriations)

Some parts of Energy Dept. (multi-year appropriations)



Commodities Futures Trading Commission


National Science Foundation

Which agencies and departments would have to cease or curtail functions during a partial shutdown?

Consumer Product Safety Commission



Energy (some parts)


Executive Office of the President (includes OMB)

Federal Communications Commission

General Services Administration

Health and Human Services (some parts)

Homeland Security



Office of Personnel Management

Securities and Exchange Commission

Small Business Administration

Social Security Administration

State (some parts)


Veterans Affairs

The District of Columbia government (because its budget must be approved by Congress.)

How many federal workers would be impacted?

About 600,000 federal employees could be furloughed during a partial shutdown, senior administration officials said Thursday.

In the spring, the government determined that all but about 800,000 federal employees had positions that would exempt them from being furloughed. That number, however, came from a base of about 2.1 million people.

Would federal workers be paid?

In its updated guidance issued Wednesday, OPM said that employees who work during a shutdown will be paid once the impasse ends. The precedent from the past is that all workers were paid later, whether they had to remain on the job or not.

In the spring, no decision was made about what would happen to furloughed workers because a shutdown was averted.

One thing to keep in mind over the holidays: OPM said furloughed federal employees may not use paid leave during a shutdown.

How would a shutdown impact the public?

Using the 1995-1996 shutdowns as a guide, it could impact the general public in several ways:

Back then, the National Institutes of Health couldn’t accept new patients for clinical research and didn’t answer hotline calls regarding diseases, according to CRS. About 2 million visitors nationwide couldn’t visit national parks, military veterans saw some health and financial services delayed, and up to 30,000 applications by foreigners for U.S. visas went unprocessed for each day of the shutdown, as did U.S. passports.

But much has changed since the 1990s. Most federal benefits are now directly deposited, for example, and some veterans services are on multi-year budgets not impacted by a budget stalemate.

What do you think? Will a shutdown occur? What questions haven’t we answered? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Federal Eye coverage of previous government shutdowns

Senate leaders say deal on spending, tax cut measures may come soon

American public to Congress: Get out. All of you.

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.