How to Shut Down the Government: A Primer

So, you'd like to shut down the federal government? Here's an easy how-to primer, in four easy steps.

First, just sit there; no action required. The federal government is exactly the opposite of the private sector. In the private sector, you can do anything you want, as long as it's not forbidden by law. In government, you can do only what the law specifically requires. No money, no work.

This is the easy part. The federal government's current authority to spend money expires on March 4. If Congress does nothing, the government can't spend money. Congress was supposed to have passed a new budget before the government's official new year's day on October 1. It didn't -- and passed a short-term continuing resolution (called a CR up on Capitol Hill). Actually a couple CRs. One expired in December, and that was extended until March. Call it CRazy, but when the current CR expires, so does the government's ability to do anything that spends money.

Well, almost. Some government operations are self-funded, like the US Mint and the Postal Service. Because they raise their own money, they can stay open. Some government operations -- mostly entitlements -- have permanent appropriations, and money continues to flow until the law is changed. So, the government could continue to pay Social Security. It's just that it can't pay anyone to sit in the Social Security offices to process applications. However, during the government shutdowns 15 years ago, complaints built up so fast that exceptions were made.

Congress stays in business. The President still goes to work. So does the cabinet. But they're very limited in what they can do.

That leads to the second step. Don't plan on doing business with the federal government. Not only won't there be anyone at the Social Security Administration to answer your calls about your check. The friendly rangers at the National Parks won't be able to let you in because they won't be there. The Wright Brothers flyer and the Apollo 11 command module will still sit in the National Air and Space Museum, but you won't be able to see it. The Washington Monument will be closed. The beautiful recreation area overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge will be chained shut. So too the hiking trails at the Angeles National Forest.

Also, don't look to the Centers for Disease Control to keep an eye on flu outbreaks. We won't be able to hire new border control agents, though the ones we have will still be at work. Projects to clean up toxic waste dumps will stop. The Iraqi vet who just returned home won't be able to visit a health clinic or apply for benefits.

Third, keep an eye open for the "excepted activities." Employees performing work deemed essential to public health and safety will show up. The air traffic controllers in Chicago will be at their radar screens and federal prison guards will keep an eye on their charges. TSA screeners will still be running everyone's favorite scanners. Patients in VA hospitals will get care, even if the outpatient clinics for vets will be shuttered. And, not to worry: the IRS will happily collect your taxes, though you might not be able to call for advice about your deductions. The State Department will run its Middle East desks to keep an eye on the turmoil sweeping that part of the world, but federal agencies won't be able to process grants to help beleaguered state governments. The feds will watch demonstrators in Tripoli but not manage grants for Wisconsin.

Fourth, get ready to clean up the mess afterwards. Government shutdowns are never very pretty. Beforehand, government employees watch nervously about whether they'll be able to go to work. Afterwards, everyone scrambles to clean up the accumulated debris. Citizens get profoundly unhappy that the government they count on isn't there. (Don't expect your emergency passport request to get processed -- you'll be stuck at home because no one will be at work to issue you a new one, and new applications will pile up fast while workers are furloughed.)

Thousands of small businesses will be hurt because they won't receive the federal payments they're counting on. Some contractors won't get their checks. And, at a time when the Chinese are vying to replace the dollar with the yuan as a major international currency, anything that further suggests to the world that we don't have our economic act together will only weaken our claim to global leadership.

Fans of the holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life, will recognize the theme. The movie's central character, George Bailey, received a special gift: he got to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. We might sometimes not much like the federal government, but when it shuts down we begin to see the foundation it has woven underneath all of our lives.

We're at an historic turning point where we're rethinking government -- what it is, how much of it we want, and how to pay for it. George Bailey's education came through a fantasy. With the federal government, the lessons will be far more painful to learn. The big question is whether it will take a shutdown to teach them.