(BLACKMEDIASCOOP) It’s been 17 years since the federal government last faced a partial shutdown because Congress and the president couldn’t agree on a spending bill. A lot has changed in that time, leaving federal employees, citizens and even government decision-makers confused about what a shutdown would mean.
Every shutdown is different. The politics that cause them are different. Because of technology and structural overhauls, the way the government functions has changed since 1996. Much of what will happen is unknown.
Here’s what we do know about Tuesday’s shutdown:
1. What causes a shutdown? Under the Constitution, Congress must pass laws to spend money. If Congress can’t agree on a spending bill — or if, in the case of the Clinton-era shutdowns, the president vetoes it — the government does not have the legal authority to spend money.
2. Why can’t Congress agree? The Republican-controlled House has passed a spending bill that maintains spending levels but does not provide funding to implement the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The Democratic Senate insists that the program be fully funded and that Congress pass what they call a “clean” CR.
3. Why is this happening now? The government runs on a fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. Shutdowns can happen at other times of the year when Congress passes a partial-year spending bill.
4. Could government agencies ignore the shutdown? Under a federal law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it can be a felony to spend taxpayer money without an appropriation from Congress.
5. When would the shutdown end? Immediately after the president signs a spending bill. As a practical matter, it could be noon the following day before most government offices that were shut down would reopen their doors.
6. How many times has the government shut down in the past? Since 1977, there have been 17 shutdowns, according to the Congressional Research Service.
7. How long do shutdowns usually last? Most last no more than three days. Some last less than a day.
8. When was the longest shutdown in history? The longest was also the most recent: from Dec. 16, 1995, through Jan. 5, 1996. That’s 21 days.
9. If the nation hits the debt limit, will government shut down? That’s a big unknown question. The Treasury Department has said the most likely scenario is that it would delay payments, paying only those bills it can afford, using daily tax revenue.
10. Will I still get my mail? Yes. The U.S. Postal Service functions as an independent business unit.
11. Can I get a passport? Maybe, but hurry. The Department of State says it has some funds outside the annual congressional appropriation. “Consular operations domestically and overseas will remain 100% operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations,” the department says.
12. Can I visit national parks? No. The National Park Service says day visitors will be told to leave immediately, and entrances will be closed.
13. Will Washington museums be open? The Smithsonian, the National Zoo and the Holocaust Museum would all be closed. Private museums, such as the Newseum, the Spy Museum and Mount Vernon, would remain open. Rule of thumb: If it’s usually free, it’s probably closed.
14. Will the District of Columbia shut down? The district does not have complete autonomy and relies on an appropriation from Congress to operate. So during the shutdowns in the 1990s, trash went uncollected, and many city departments closed. In a departure from past shutdowns, Mayor Vincent Gray has informed the Office of Management and Budget that he has deemed all city employees “essential.” The district’s own attorney general has declared the mayor’s plan illegal.
15. Would a shutdown put the brakes on implementing the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare?” No. The state-run exchanges for the uninsured would open as scheduled Tuesday. “The marketplaces will be open on Tuesday, no matter what, even if there is a government shutdown,” President Obama said Friday.
16. Why not? Like Social Security or Medicaid, Obamacare is a permanent entitlement that isn’t subject to annual funding by Congress. “Many of the core parts of the health care law are funded through mandatory appropriations and wouldn’t be affected,” Gary Cohen, the Health and Human Services Department official overseeing the health care rollout, said last week.
17. Would seniors continue to get Social Security benefits? Yes. Social Security is a mandatory spending program, and the people who send those checks would continue to work under a legal doctrine called “necessary implication.”
18. Would the government continue to pay unemployment benefits? Yes. The Employment and Training Administration “will continue to provide essential functions, as occurred during the shutdown of 1995,” according to the Department of Labor contingency plan.
19. Will I be able to get food stamps? Yes. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is funded through the Recovery Act and from funds that don’t expire for another year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
20. What about WIC?No money would be available to pay the administrative costs of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. But because it’s administered by states, there may be state funds available.
21. And the federal school lunch program? Schools are reimbursed for these costs on a monthly basis and are allowed to carry over funds from the previous fiscal year. The USDA expects most schools will be able to continue providing meals through October.
22. What will happen to veterans receiving compensation for service- or combat-related wounds and injuries? The Department of Veterans Affairs said if the shutdown continues into late October, it will run out of money for compensation and pension checks to more than 3.6 million veterans who rely on the money to support themselves.
23. Does that mean I can’t get an FHA mortgage? No. The Federal Housing Administration says it “will endorse new loans under current multi-year appropriation authority in order to support the health and stability of the U.S. mortgage market.”
24. Does that mean I can’t get a VA mortgage? No. The Department of Veterans Affairs says loans are funded via user fees and should continue. However, during the last shutdown, “loan Guaranty certificates of eligibility and certificates of reasonable value were delayed.”
25. Would the IRS continue to collect taxes? Yes. All payments would be processed. More than 12 million people have requested an extension on their 2012 taxes, which expires Oct. 15.
26. Will my refund be delayed? Possibly, especially if the taxpayer files a paper return.
27. I’m being audited by the IRS. Would a shutdown affect me? Yes. The IRS will suspend all audit activities.
28. Would the president be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The president’s $400,000 salary is mandatory spending. If furloughs begin to affect the government’s ability to process payroll, his paycheck could be delayed.
29. What about White House staff? Some high-ranking presidential appointees are exempt from the Annual and Sick Leave Act of 1951, which means they can essentially be made to work unpaid overtime. Also, any employee necessary for the president to carry out his constitutional duties would be exempt.
30. And the president’s personal aides? The White House has 90 staffers who work in the residence. During a shutdown, 15 of them would stay on the job.
31. Would Congress continue to be paid during a shutdown? Yes. The 27th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1992, holds that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” Intended to prevent Congress from voting itself a raise, it also protects members from a pay cut.
32. What about congressional staff? Like other federal employees, they would be deemed essential or non-essential. Essential staff would include those necessary to carry out constitutional responsibilities, such as the parliamentarians, or for protection of members, such as the sergeants-at-arms. Staff of the appropriations committees may also be needed to write the law that would end the shutdown.
33. Would active-duty military be furloughed? No. All active-duty military are essential and should report as scheduled Tuesday, the Department of Defense said Friday.
34. Would active-duty military be paid during a shutdown? If a shutdown lasts longer than a week, the Pentagon might not be able to process its payroll in time for the Oct. 15 paychecks, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said Friday. The House passed a separate bill early Sunday that would appropriate money for active-duty and reserve paychecks regardless of the shutdown — and also pay for support services to make sure they get paid. That bill passed the House 422-0, but still must go to the Senate.
35. Would federal employees get paid retroactively, even if they didn’t work? Maybe. Congress granted retroactive pay to furloughed workers after the shutdowns of the mid-1990s, but that wouldn’t necessarily happen again. “I believe this time is going to be much different. This is a much different Congress than the 1995 Congress,” said Cox, federal employee union president. “I’m not sure that they’d even want to go back and pay the people who worked.”
SCOOP: USA TODAY
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