Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed from the U.S. Treasury's Financial Management services facility in Philadelphia. (AP File Photo/Bradley C Bower, File)
By ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON — Social Security checks would still go out. Troops would remain at their posts. Furloughed federal workers probably would get paid, though not until later. And virtually every essential government agency, like the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, would remain open.
That’s the little-known truth about a government shutdown. The government doesn’t shut down.
And it won’t on March 5, even if the combatants on Capitol Hill can’t resolve enough differences to pass a stopgap spending bill to fund the government while they hash out legislation to cover the last seven months of the budget year.
Fewer than half of the 2.1 million federal workers subject to a shutdown would be forced off the job if the Obama administration followed the path taken by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And that’s not counting 600,000 Postal Service employees or 1.6 million uniformed military personnel exempt from a shutdown.
So we’re talking fewer than one in four federal workers staying at home. Many federal workers get paid on March 4, so it would take a two-week shutdown for them to see a delay in their paychecks.
The rules for who works and who doesn’t date back to the early 1980s and haven’t been significantly modified since. The Obama administration hasn’t issued new guidance.
The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans’ health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual. The Social Security Administration would not only send out benefits but would continue to take applications. The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would keep delivering the mail. Federal courts would remain open.
The cherry blossoms in Washington would bloom as usual, and visitors to the city would be able to park and see them in all their glory around the Tidal Basin.
But they wouldn’t be able to take the elevator up the Washington Monument, visit museums along the National Mall or take a White House tour. National parks would be closed to visitors, a loss often emphasized in shutdown discussions.
The Capitol would remain open, however. Congress is deemed essential, despite its abysmal poll ratings.
The IRS wouldn’t answer its taxpayer hotline — at the height of tax-filing season. Under IRS precedents, the agency would process tax returns that contain payments. But people getting refunds would have to wait.
All sides say they don’t want a so-called shutdown like the two separate partial government closings in 1995-1996, when President Clinton and a then-new GOP majority in Congress were at loggerheads over the budget. Republicans took most of the political blame, and the episodes gave Clinton critical momentum on his way to re-election.
There haven’t been any shutdowns since then. The politics stink.
But from a practical perspective, shutdowns usually aren’t that big a deal. They happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each. During President Reagan’s two terms, there were six shutdowns, typically of just one or two days apiece. Deals got cut. Everybody moved on.
In 1995-96, however, shutdowns morphed into political warfare, to the dismay of Republicans who thought they could use them to drag Clinton to the negotiating table on a balanced budget plan.
Republicans took a big political hit, but a compendium of the other hardships experienced reads like a roster of relatively minor inconveniences for most Americans: closed parks, delays in processing passport applications, 2,400 workers cleaning up toxic waste sites being sent home, and a short delay in processing veterans’ claims. A new government standard for lights and lamps was delayed.
To be sure, furloughs can be a major hardship for federal workers. Even those in essential jobs — and required to work — could see their paychecks delayed if a stalemate dragged on.
Lawmakers, however, typically provide back pay, even for employees who weren’t required to work. A repeat of that could raise hackles with some in the tea party-backed House GOP freshman class. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wouldn’t address whether furloughed federal workers would receive back pay if there is a shutdown this time.
Under a precedent-setting memorandum by Reagan budget chief David Stockman, federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property.”
In 1995, that meant 571,000 Defense Department civilian employees, some 69 percent, remained at post, while 258,000 other Pentagon workers were furloughed. Eighty-five percent of Veterans Administration employees went to work as did 70 percent of Transportation Department workers.
But just a handful of Environmental Protection Agency employees and only 7 percent of NASA workers were on the job, according to Clinton administration data.
This year, NASA would face widespread furloughs that suggest a shutdown could interrupt preparation for space shuttle flights this spring — though the “life and property” rules would almost certainly be invoked so that the Space Shuttle Discovery could land as scheduled on March 7. It’s slated to take off Thursday.
Just 4 percent of employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development went to work in the 1995 shutdown, as did 11 percent of Department of Education employees. The National Archives shut down completely, as did the tiny Selective Service System.
Then there’s Social Security. Current beneficiaries need not worry; their payments wouldn’t be affected. And given the most recent precedent from the Clinton administration, those eligible to apply for benefits would be able to do so.
During the first shutdown in 1995, the Social Security Administration initially furloughed 93 percent of its workers and stopped enrolling new beneficiaries. But it reversed course in the second shutdown and kept 50,000 additional workers on the job.
If the federal government is shut down for several days, the Census Bureau could miss its April 1 legal deadline to provide 2010 redistricting data to the states. The bureau is currently in the midst of checking its population tallies, which are broken down by race and ethnicity down to the neighborhood level, for many states.
By the March 4 deadline, the bureau expects it will have distributed the data to about roughly half the states, with big states such as California, New York and Florida potentially left hanging if the government closes down.