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What's Closed (And What's Not) In A Shutdown

If a shutdown occurs, Justin Castro, a National Park Service ranger, would be furloughed from his post at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which would stay open.
Sue Ogrocki
If a shutdown occurs, Justin Castro, a National Park Service ranger, would be furloughed from his post at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which would stay open.

The consequences of a partial government shutdown would be felt most immediately and visibly in areas where the public interacts directly with agencies. But if it drags on, those consequences could spread through the federal court system, the mortgage industry and even the launch of a space shuttle.

In the short term, the 394 sites run by the National Park Service would be closed, while income tax returns filed on paper would not be processed. There would also be fresh headaches for people trying to get their mortgage loan applications approved or applying for Social Security benefits.

An estimated 800,000 federal workers, in total, would be furloughed. But an additional 2 million civilians who work for the federal government would still be expected to show up — along with the nation's 1.8 million sailors and soldiers.

Members of Congress and the White House would continue negotiations without the support of as much staff, with widespread but far from universal furloughs expected at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave.

Here's a rundown on what would be closed, and what wouldn't:

Public Health And Safety

Throughout the government, emergency personnel would still be reporting for duty. That obviously applies to people who work in law enforcement, including U.S. marshals. Most customs and Border Patrol services would operate as usual.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency would continue its emergency operations. Most of the rest of the Department of Homeland Security would function normally, but administrative personnel would be subject to furlough.

The Environmental Protection Agency would stop monitoring pollution and also cease cleanups at toxic waste sites. Weather forecasting by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, meanwhile, would continue.

Air traffic controllers also would show up for work.

Cases would be heard within the federal court system, with ongoing criminal trials, especially, likely to continue to completion. If the shutdown lasted more than a couple of weeks individual judges — who would all remain on duty while some of their support staff would be sent home — would decide whether to continue with activities such as hearings and filings.

National Security And State

Men and women in uniform would be expected to serve as usual, but their paychecks would be delayed until the shutdown is over. However, unlike civilian workers, troops are guaranteed of receiving back pay when the shutdown ends.

The State Department would continue to provide aid to Americans in distress abroad but would not be processing new passport applications. "Passport Day in the USA," a promotional event scheduled for Saturday, would be canceled. Emergency passport services, however, would continue.

Embassies in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan would stay open — as well as those in areas of conflict and distress such as Egypt and Japan.

In general, State Department operations would be affected less than those of other agencies, owing to their sensitive nature. "Closing down or significantly scaling back operations abroad could immediately diminish our influence and damage our relations with the host governments," the department's own guidelines say.

The space shuttle Endeavour would still be on track to launch April 29, assuming the shutdown did not last more than a week. Past that time, each additional day of the shutdown would delay the launch by a day.

Entitlements And Financial Services

Retirees would continue to receive their Social Security checks, because those are paid for out of separate trust funds. Medicare should also remain funded during a short shutdown.

But the Social Security Administration would not have people available to answer most questions from citizens. New applications for cash benefits — along with disability coverage under Medicaid — would be delayed.

The IRS would similarly shut down much of its customer support operations and, as noted earlier, wouldn't be processing paper returns. Loan applications would also be slowed or stopped at the Small Business Administration and the Federal Housing Administration.

Mortgage lenders are worried that the lack of FHA processing and their inability to derive tax information about borrowers from the IRS could put another damper on the housing market. Potential homeowners who expect to be closing soon on their home purchases might see a delay.

But Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at the research firm Moody's Analytics, says that the impact on the housing market would be small, unless a shutdown dragged on for a couple of weeks.

States are nervous that some federal programs they help administer — particularly welfare and food stamps — could run into trouble if a shutdown endured. Those programs rely on frequent transfers from the U.S. Treasury and could run out of money quickly if the financial tap is turned off.

Keeping The Trains Running

The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would continue operating as normal. Also, Amtrak, which receives only partial funding from the federal government, would keep its trains running according to its usual schedules, assuming the shutdown were short-lived.

The impact of a shutdown would be felt acutely in Washington, not only because of the heavy presence of government workers and contractors, but also because the District of Columbia relies on federal funding for a portion of its budget.

Congress approves annual appropriations for the District in part to make up for the amount of nontaxable property the federal government occupies in the city. District residents hoping to use the library or get their trash picked up would therefore be disappointed. But at least there would be some free parking.

Parks And Recreation

The 394 sites administered by the National Park Service would close their gates. People showing up for Saturday's National Cherry Blossom Festival would be out of luck, while upcoming events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War at places such as Fort Sumter and Gettysburg would be canceled.

Roads that pass through large parks such as Yellowstone and Gettysburg would remain open, while the parklands themselves would be off limits. Law enforcement personnel would remain on duty throughout the park system.

Most other parks personnel would be sent home, but those who provide essential services would still be working. For example, the National Zoo in Washington would be closed to the public, but about 70 percent of the staff would still be on hand to care for and tend to the animals, according to a zoo spokeswoman.

Personnel And Their Support

Federal employees who were furloughed during the last government shutdown, in 1995 and 1996, were made whole with back pay. That's up to Congress. There's been some talk this time that Congress won't approve retroactive payments.

Government contractors left idle won't be able to make up lost wages and revenue in most cases, says Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contractors trade association.

That will have an economic impact on places where the federal government has a particularly large presence – not just the national capital area, but cities such as San Antonio and Huntsville, Ala.

"Not all contractors will be shut out — many are on contracts that are already funded," Soloway says. "But potentially a significant percentage won't be able to work. Government contractors are working in direct support of the government, so to the extent the government is not able to work, there are clearly effects."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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