The federal government failed to pass a spending bill Friday night, causing the first government shutdown since 2013. This process will complicate many lives — those of federal workers and the millions of Americans who rely on them. Here are the answers to questions you might have about how the shutdown could affect you or your neighbor.
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What is a government shutdown?
Exactly what it sounds like. Much of the federal government gets its funding from annual budget appropriations decided by Congress. The legislation that provides that funding must be passed by a certain deadline — Friday at midnight. Since Congress didn’t find a consensus, the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the federal government can’t get a paycheck. Legally, many of those federal workers are obligated to stop showing up to work — known as an unpaid furlough.
What closes when the government shuts down?
Most federal departments and agencies will be at least partially shut down, but airports, prisons and local parks, schools and libraries will be open. The Post is compiling a more complete list of what you can expect to close during a shutdown.
Who keeps working during a government shutdown?
Some agencies, and thus the employees working in them, are “exempt” from a shutdown because they do not get their funding through the congressional appropriations process. The largest of these is the U.S. Postal Service, which operates on income from postage and the items it sells. Other agencies, or parts of them, also have funding not subject to annual appropriations — for example, through fees they charge for their services, or from trust funds or multi-year budgets. Employees whose salaries are funded in that way would continue working, and getting paid, as normal.
For employees whose salaries are paid from appropriations, there is another distinction: “excepted” vs. “non-excepted” (not “essential” vs. “non-essential,” which are the more commonly used, but not official, terms).
Excepted employees are those whose jobs involve the safety of human life, the protection of property, or certain other types of work designated by their agencies as necessary to continue. These are not necessarily the same as “emergency” employees who are expected to continue coming to work when agencies close for other reasons, such as for severe weather.
Excepted employees are to continue reporting for work as normal during a shutdown, though in the meantime they would not be paid for that time. Because agencies are required to pay for services performed, those employees are guaranteed to be paid after Congress passes — and the president signs — a new appropriation or continuing resolution. Exactly when they would be paid would depend on the timing of the new spending authority and the payroll cycle the agency uses.
When a shutdown starts, employees who are neither “exempt” nor “excepted” are put on unpaid furlough. They are to perform what guidance calls “minimal activities as necessary to execute an orderly suspension of agency operations related to non-excepted activities.” That typically is to last about a half-day on their first scheduled workday after a shutdown begins. They then are to leave the workplace and they are not to work while on furlough, even on a volunteer basis.
Each agency decides how and when it notifies employees of their status.
How many federal employees will be furloughed?
Each agency has a shutdown “contingency plan” that describes which functions would remain open and which would close. Some of them provide specific numbers of employees who would remain at work and how many would be sent home on unpaid furlough; others don’t. Many of these numbers have been updated in recent months, while some date to 2015. In general, they are relatively little changed since the partial government shutdown in 2013.
In 2013, about 800,000 of the 2.1 million civilian federal employees in the executive branch, excluding intelligence agencies, were furloughed. (That number includes part-time, seasonal and temporary employees; some counts of the federal workforce exclude them.) During the two-week shutdown, about half of those civilian employees were called back to work, mainly at the Defense Department, following passage of a bill providing funds to pay military personnel and civilians who directly support them. The Social Security Administration also recalled some employees so they could work on benefits claims.
Do furloughed employees get back pay?
That is up to Congress and the White House. The precedent is that furloughed employees are later paid; that was done in the most recent partial shutdown, in October 2013. (There was a separate set of unpaid furloughs in some agencies in the spring and summer of 2013, related to “sequestration” budget caps; those employees were not paid later for that time.) Legislation has already been introduced in Congress to provide back pay if a shutdown happens.
Incidentally, those who are furloughed could not substitute annual leave or other forms of paid time off for that unpaid time, and previously scheduled leave would be canceled. They could take other jobs, but only those allowable under government ethics rules restricting outside income. They also could apply for unemployment benefits, but states typically impose a waiting period of a week or more before benefits begin and further require that anyone paid later for furlough time must return any unemployment benefits they received.
Which areas could be hit the hardest?
Although the Washington area has the highest number of civilian full-time federal employees, government workers make up large shares of the workforce in many other areas, often near military bases.
How does a shutdown affect federal employee benefits?
Health insurance coverage continues during unpaid time. The enrollee share of the premiums accumulates and is withheld from salary once the employee returns to pay status. For those enrolled in long-term care or vision-dental insurance programs and who pay through payroll withholdings, premiums would accumulate for several unpaid pay periods. After that, they would be billed directly.
Life insurance coverage continues without cost to the employee for an unpaid period up to a year.
A shutdown would not affect future retirement benefits for current employees unless it drags on much longer than any past shutdowns. A civil service retirement benefit is based on service time and the “high three” — the average salary of the highest-paid consecutive three years with the government. Up to six months of unpaid leave in a calendar year counts as creditable service time. Similarly, the high three is based on the salary rate, not the salary actually received, for up to six months of unpaid leave in a year.
For current retirees, payments come from a trust fund that would not be affected by a lapse in appropriations, so the money would be available to pay them. The retirement processing functions at the Office of Personnel Management also are not funded through appropriations, so they would continue as normal. Federal retirement annuities are timed to be received by retirees on the first business day of each month, which in this case would be Thursday, Feb. 1.
What about members of Congress, political appointees and the president?
Here’s what a Congressional Research Service report has to say: “With regard to the President’s pay, Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution forbids the salary of the President to be reduced while he or she is in office, thus effectively guaranteeing the President of compensation regardless of any shutdown action.”
Regarding members of Congress, it says: “Due to their constitutional responsibilities and a permanent appropriation for congressional pay, Members of Congress are not subject to furlough. Additionally, Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution states that Members of Congress ‘shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States,’ and the 27th Amendment states, ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.’”
As for congressional staffers, it says, “Any decision regarding requirements that a congressional employee continue to work during a government shutdown would appear to fall to his or her employing authority”-- that is, the member of Congress for those working in personal offices, or the legislative agency for those working for one of them. The House Administration Committee, which oversees operations in that chamber, on Friday issued guidance saying that offices should keep on the job “only those employees whose primary job responsibilities are directly related to constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life, or the protection of property. All other House personnel shall be placed in a furlough status by the appropriate employing authority until further appropriations are made.”
Guidance from the Office of Personnel Management says the large majority of political appointees “are not subject to furloughs because they are considered to be entitled to the pay of their offices solely by virtue of their status as an officer, rather than by virtue of the hours they work. In other words, their compensation is attached to their office, and, by necessary implication of the President’s authority to appoint such employees, their service under such an appointment creates budgetary obligations without the need for additional statutory authorization.” The exception is that the relatively few political appointees in the Senior Executive Service, under 1,000, are subject to being furloughed because they fall under the regular federal employee leave policies.
What about military personnel?
The Defense Department issued guidance Friday saying that in the event of a shutdown, “Military personnel on active duty, including reserve component personnel on Federal active duty, will continue to report for duty and carry out assigned duties.”
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker summarizes the situation regarding their pay: “There would be no gap in their pay unless the shutdown lasted past Feb. 1, and otherwise they would continue on the job without getting paid until the shutdown ended or until Congress and the president agreed to cover their costs before it ended. The last time the government shut down, in 2013, the military remained on the job and legislation to pay service members during the shutdown was signed by President Barack Obama.” (Note: A previous version of this answer said the military would be paid up to Feb. 1.)
What about contractor employees?
That’s a mixed bag. Office of Management and Budget guidance on that topic goes on for page after page, addressing variations such as whether the work is deemed necessary for reasons such as the protection of health or safety; whether the federal employees who supervise the contract will be on the job or not; whether the work could continue without such supervision if not; whether the work is funded under a multi-year appropriation; whether the contractor has been paid in advance; and much more. Generally, during a lapse, an agency may not issue a new contract or grant or exercise a renewal of an existing one, but there are exceptions even to that rule. One simple threshold question is whether a federal facility where contractors do their work will remain accessible to them.
An OMB assessment of the 2013 shutdown found that it “resulted in over 10,000 stop work orders for contracts and numerous temporary layoffs among the federal contractor community. . . . Payment delays during the shutdown forced contractors to temporarily lay off employees and imposed particular financial hardship on small businesses with less ability to absorb losses and put off payments of their own.” Whether furloughed contractor employees are paid later for that time is up to the contractor.
Remember, that shutdown lasted two weeks, about as long as the prior one in 1995 and 1996, but very long by the standards of prior shutdowns, most of which lasted just a few days.
Will I still be able to visit the national parks and monuments?
This year, Trump administration officials have made a precedent-setting decision to keep national parks and public land “as accessible as possible” in the event of a shutdown, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Post. Officials said the anticipated plan is to keep many parks open for hiking, wildlife watching, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Open-air parks and monuments in Washington will remain open. Other services that require park staff, including campgrounds and concessions, will close.
The parks were shuttered during two past government shutdowns, in 1995 and 2013, when Republicans controlled Congress and a Democrat sat in the White House. It was a political disaster, one Trump officials hope to avoid because they don’t want to be blamed for ruining vacations or keeping veterans from war memorials.
How will this affect FEMA natural-disaster cleanup efforts?
It’s unclear how ongoing Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and California from recent hurricanes and wildfires would be affected. FEMA staffers would still respond to emergencies, but the Trump administration has not clarified how many workers, if any, would continue with long-term projects.
Will the shutdown also halt the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election?
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation will continue as planned because it is funded by a permanent indefinite appropriation, rather than an annual appropriation dependent on Congress. Employees with the special counsel’s office are exempt from furlough.
Will my mail still arrive?
Will I still receive Social Security or other benefits?
Recipients of Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps and some other programs will continue to receive their benefits. The programs’ spending is not dependent on Congress’s explicit funding.