Government Shutdown: What Would It Look Like?

WASHINGTON -- If you were wondering what a government shutdown would look like, your guess is almost as good as Congress', even as a budget impasse threatens to unplug large parts of federal agencies next month.

While some of the broader implications of a shutdown can be predicted, the White House's Office of Management and Budget keeps the agency's shutdown plans secret--and Congress has not recently examined how the feds would go about shuttering large sections of the government.

A spokesman for the notoriously investigation-happy chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said the committee was “focused on other things.”

The administration, meanwhile, declined to discuss the possible impact of a shutdown, insisting that one can be forestalled. “Since 1980, all agencies have had to maintain a plan in case of a government shutdown and we are prepared for any contingency as a matter of course,” said OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack.

“Most importantly, discussions are ongoing and the congressional leadership and the President have said they want to avoid a government shutdown,” she added. “So we’re not getting into hypotheticals.”

But the Congressional Research Service, which suggested in a report last month the time could be ripe for some investigation, has identified some of the more basic impacts of earlier shutdowns, with the caveat that things could be different this time around.

Among the things almost certain to stop are the operation of national parks, the processing of many permits, work at Superfund sites, and work by many federal contractors.

As the shutdown date of April 8 draws near, the Internal Revenue Service's ability to process tax returns could also be threatened, just before the tax-filing deadline of April 18.

But many other government functions would be “excepted” from the shutdown as well. While the CRS warns “previous determinations of excepted activities and personnel would not necessarily hold for any future shutdown,” broad categories are likely to be the same as in the past.

The government would continue to fund national security and jobs that protect "the safety of life and property," as well as air traffic control, law enforcement, food and drug inspections, and the care of people in federal custody. The power grid and banking systems would be maintained as well.

Beyond that, the specific effects of a shutdown would depend on the OMB's secret contingency plans, and decisions made by top Obama administration officials, which the administration declined to discuss.

Which leaves folks guessing.

“If it’s just a day or two, or over the weekend, the impact isn’t that much. But each day there’s a margin of cost that gets larger as the shutdown continues,” said Bruce Yandle, a professor with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center who directed the Federal Trade Commission in the 1980s, after contingency plans were first required.

He estimates that widely reported costs of $100 million a day are on the low end.

Though the overall severity of a shutdown would depend on its length, Yandle predicted that some agencies would have to start closing shop almost immediately.

“The lights do go out,” he said.

The contingency plans referred to by OMB spokeswoman Mack require all agencies to estimate how long it would take for them to pull the plug, down to the half day.

Administrators also have to detail which workers would be furloughed and those who would be among the “excepted” categories or compensated by sources other than Congress’s annual appropriations.

There are bound to be hitches. When the government closed in in late 1995 and early 1996 during the Clinton administration, the Social Security Administration furloughed more than 61,000 workers, but soon found it was unable to process benefit checks for millions of people. Officials had to bring back nearly 50,000 workers.

Since the world is even more interconnected today than it was 15 years ago, it’s impossible to predict how bad or complicated things might get during a shutdown--which is likely to put a lot of pressure on legislators to keep it short.

“The longer it goes, the more unbearable it will get," said Yandle. “I think we will realize how extensively the federal government is involved in all aspects of life, and we’ll all be surprised.”