Guide to a government shutdown

The government is making plans for a government shutdown if negotiations on a federal budget for the last six months of the fiscal year don’t lead to a settlement. President Obama met this morning at the White House with House Speaker John Boehner,R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. No deal was reached.

What happens if the government shuts down? The Office of Management and Budget already has the plans, it’s just not revealing what they are. But based on previous shutdowns, here are the likely answers to questions about it:

Q: Will I get my Social Security payment?

A: Yes. But there is some dispute over how many Social Security workers would stay on the job. Some say the Social Security Administration is not part of an appropriation, so its workers wouldn’t be affected, but the Office of Management and Budget is commenting on this so we don’t know what would happen, say, if you wanted to apply for disability payments via Social Security. But that’s a process that can drag on for a year or more, anyway.

Q: What is the most obvious effect of the shutdown?

A: Plan on seeing TV news footage of families who’ve been saving up for a vacation in Washington, turned away from a locked Smithsonian or Washington Monument. Or any other government-run museum or attraction, including the national parks. In Minnesota, this would obviously include Voyageurs.

For people who operate restaurants and businesses in areas where there are lots of federal workers, the shutdown will likely cost them dearly.

It would be a bad time for one of those salmonella outbreaks or mysterious illnesses to occur. The Centers for Disease Control will stop tracking them during a shutdown. But Team Diarrhea would still be on the case. Heck, they do a lot of the work, anyway.

Q: Would the VA facilities close?

A: No. Medical employees who provide inpatient and emergency care are considered essential. But outpatient treatment would likely be curtailed.

Q: Would federal courts close?

A: Bad news, white-collar criminals. They stay open.

Q: Would it be safe to fly?

A: Air traffic controllers are considered essential so there would be no disruption in ATC activities. Metal fatigue in aging aircraft, however, don’t know when the government is operating and when it isn’t.

Q: If the Red River flooding requires federal aid and response, will residents get it?

A: Yes. Disaster response is not affected in a shutdown.

Q: Will I still have to pay taxes by April 18?

A: Yes, but you may have to wait longer to get a refund.

Q: If the government shuts down, who will bring me my daily supply of credit card offers?

A: No problem. The mail will still be delivered.

Q: What are some less obvious effects of the shutdown?

A: From the Boston Globe: “(In the 1995 shutdown) …the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking the spread of diseases such as AIDS and the flu; toxic waste removal at 609 sites was suspended. Work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases ceased, and investigations into delinquent child support cases were put on hold.”

Q: What if I need a visa or passport?

A: In 1995, 20,000-30,000 foreign visa applications per day went unprocessed, as did an estimated total of 200,000 U.S. passport applications, according to PBS.

Q: I work for the federal government. Will I have to go to work?

A: From Federal Computer Week: There are two types of shutdowns. In a “soft shutdown,” federal employees would come to work but could not do anything “productive,” that is, anything to carry out the central duties of the agency. They could clean up their desks.

A “hard shutdown” would mean employees are furloughed from work. Only those few exempt employee would come in.

The soft shutdown would only occur if the president believes there’s a chance for a rapid compromise with Congress. Hard shutdowns would signal a bleaker picture.

Q: How many federal workers would be furloughed?

A: In the last shutdown — 1995 — about 800,000 government workers were furloughed. Back then, there were 2,920,000 federal employees, excluding the military. Now, there are 2,839,000 federal employees, excluding uniformed military.

Q: Will I be paid during the furlough?

A: In the last shutdown, workers were paid retroactively. So the government doesn’t save on salaries during a shutdown. However, people who work under contract with the federal government would not likely be paid. At all.

There is a growing chorus, however, that is saying government workers shouldn’t be paid if they’re not going to work. That will probably be the first debate that will get all the attention after the shutdown crisis itself is solved.

Q: What if I want to work unpaid?

A: You can’t. Federal law prohibits the government from accepting volunteer work.

Q: Will soldiers be paid?

A: A Pentagon spokesman said today the Department of Defense has not yet decided. It’s a safe bet, however, that even Washington understands the public relations nightmare that comes with not giving a soldier at war his check.

Q: How long will it last?

A: If history is any guide, a few days. The longest shutdown lasted less about three weeks.

Q: How much will the government save during the shutdown.

A: Nothing. Current estimates, which some consider low, suggest it could cost the government $100 million a day.