Green Room

What Happens If the Government Does Shut Down? (UPDATE)

posted at 11:58 am on April 6, 2011 by

UPDATE: An earlier iteration of this column contained information culled from an Office of Management and Budget memo that his turned out in part to be incorrect. My thanks to reader RachDubya and my colleague and friend J.E. Dyer for pointing out the errors.

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Now that a shutdown of the federal government on Friday seems increasingly likely, a question many Americans are asking is “What does a shutdown mean?” A memo from the Office of Management and Budget outlining contingency plans provides some answers.

According to the memo, Congress would be largely unaffected by a shutdown. Except for nonessential employees, legislative branch would continue to do business as usual. It is constitutionally obliged to do just that:

Because a disruption in the legislative activities of the House would prevent the House from exercising its powers under Article I of the Constitution of the United States, essential employees should continue to perform their normal duties.

Who are nonessential congressional personnel, and what fate would befall them? That, too, is specified:

[E]ach House employing authority shall designate as essential personnel only those employees whose primary job responsibilities are directly related to constitutional responsibilities, related to the protection of human life, or related to the protection of property. All other House personnel shall be placed in a furlough status by the appropriate employing authority until appropriations are made available.

Despite earlier reports that the Pentagon would likewise be unfazed by a shutdown, I have since learned that military pay could be suspended. J.E. has a column on this topic today which I urge readers to turn to next. In order for service members to continue receiving paychecks, Congress would have to pass a bill introduced last week that would ensure there is not a lapse in military pay. This potential glitch would also affect military contractors in a number of key areas. These lapses could impact national security.

Other federal employees may face a similar scenario, as workers did during the last government shutdown, which occurred in 1995. (Yes, there have been previous shutdowns!) Some workers were “furloughed,” while others continued to work without pay on the premise that they would receive retroactive pay once the government was back online. This retroactive pay would need to written into whatever budget legislation was eventually passed by Congress.

Recipients of government entitlement programs, such as Social Security, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid, would not experience a delay in payments, though new applications for any of these programs would likely be placed on hold.

Other nonessential government services, such as national parks and museums, would close during a shutdown.

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Will we continue to pay our debt obligations to foreign nations?

NTWR on April 6, 2011 at 1:19 PM

The suspension of pay to Pentagon civilian and military employees is unlikely in any case since their checks are electronically scheduled.

Incorrect. Military continued to be paid during the ’95 shutdown because of the directive issued in that regard. Electronic pay only means that it’s pre-scheduled a couple weeks out. It’s not as though it’s set up indefinately at all times or something.

The military would not continue to receive pay if the shutdown lasted more than, say, two weeks.

RachDubya on April 6, 2011 at 1:48 PM

What Happens If the Government Does Shut Down? Obama will continue to campaign on our dime, party as usual and golf every opportunity he gets.

brdchris1 on April 6, 2011 at 2:36 PM

Anybody know what happens to the eeeeeeevil government contractors?

Mary in LA on April 6, 2011 at 4:28 PM

Today’s news has been full of reports from every quarter — including all the MSM outlets — that White House budgeteers are saying military pay could be suspended. They’re being very specific about it.

I wrote about it in my latest post, “Get out the word.” House and Senate both have bills introduced in the last week to ensure military pay keeps going, but neither has been passed yet.

I think a lot of Americans are prepared to endure a shutdown, but few if any think the troops and their families should have to suffer.

Regarding contractors, the general statement is that federal agency payments would be suspended to “non-essential” contracts, which would mean work would stop.

Contract personnel who perform jobs like security for overseas government installations, language interpretation for the military, counter-intel/counterterrorism analysis, etc, would presumably be considered “essential” and kept on the job.

Contracting companies to whom government payments were suspended would have to decide how to handle their obligations to their employees who work directly with/for the federal agencies.

J.E. Dyer on April 6, 2011 at 4:44 PM

RachDubya/J.E., thank you both for sharing these important corrections. I will update the column to reflect them.

Howard Portnoy on April 6, 2011 at 5:10 PM

Will we continue to pay our debt obligations to foreign nations?

NTWR on April 6, 2011 at 1:19 PM

This is the BIG question, even bigger than military pay. As far as I know it’s an executive decision totally up to the Obama administration. That he might want to use this opportunity to default on our debt and blame it on the GOP is palpable. G-d help us that he doesn’t do this ’cause if he does we are toast, which is, I believe, what the 0’s been working for all along.

shmendrick on April 6, 2011 at 9:04 PM