Still, a “shutdown” has scary connotations: visions of Y2K apocalyptica, with planes grounded, the military stalled, and yellowing Social Security checks piled high and undelivered in unmanned offices. In a piece titled “What might a government shutdown look like,” the Post’s Ed O’Keefe conjures up some of this, drawing on the mid-nineties shutdowns still fresh in some people’s memories:
If President Obama and congressional Republicans fail to agree soon on how to fund the final seven months of the fiscal year, some veterans might not receive benefits checks and other Americans would be unable to apply for Social Security. The State Department might not issue new passports, unemployment statistics would not publish as scheduled, museums and national parks would close, and worse—piles of elephant manure might pile up in a National Zoo parking lot because workers can’t ship it away for composting.
O’Keefe spoke to members of the Senior Executives Association, which represents government career managers, and one told him how a shutdown affects government staff: “The main impact was a vast amount of work associated with building shutdown plans and determining exactly who was and wasn’t essential, and all the morale issues associated with the fear of impending implementation of those plans. I worked hard to get as many as possible of our then-1,200 or so employees deemed essential as I could, and that helped with morale.” O’Keefe adds: “Even if non-essential workers wanted to work without pay, they could face fines of up to $5,000 or up to two years in prison for violating a federal law that prohibits agencies from accepting volunteer labor.”
In terms of how a “shutdown” affects the general population, NPR is on the job, mining the CRS reports to pull out stats, suggesting that while a shutdown mimicking those from the nineties would be inconvenient, it would not be catastrophic.
• Visas and Passports. Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas reportedly went unprocessed each day; 200,000 U.S. applications for passports reportedly went unprocessed; and U.S. tourist industries and airlines reportedly sustained millions of dollars in losses.
• Health. New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical center; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance; hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites reportedly stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home.
• Law Enforcement and Public Safety. Delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended; cancellation of the recruitment and testing of federal law enforcement officials reportedly occurred, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents; and delinquent child-support cases were delayed.
The same report also notes that the closure of 368 National Park Service sites saw a loss of 7 million visitors, while national museum and monument closures saw a loss of 2 million—the effect on local businesses near these sites was unknown. The Post similarly notes that with all those Washingtonians put out of work for a spell, “stores and restaurants near federal buildings relying on daytime foot traffic would suffer and Metrorail revenues would plummet from lower ridership.”
New word of the day: “ridership.”
It’s important to note, as O’Keefe does in his Post report, that a government shutdown today would not completely mirror shutdowns past. Budget analyst Stan Collander tells O’Keefe: “Instead of checks being mailed, they’re now transferred electronically. But you’ve also got other things that didn’t exist before like Homeland Security. There would have to be some reevaluation from last time. Those are big policy decisions. The next level down is to tell every agency to start preparing for a shutdown. Who gets to come in, who doesn’t? What additional help do you need for security and computer systems?”