Government shutdown: Questions and answers as the federal fiscal year calendar ends September 30

The memos from the White House Office of Management and Budget have gone out to federal agencies telling them to prepare for a government shutdown.

The House has passed a continuing appropriations resolution with a poison pill neither the Senate nor White House will accept: delaying and defunding "Obamacare."

SPECIAL SECTION - What is Obamacare? Understanding the Affordable Care Act at www.kjrh.com/aca

And the fiscal year ends at midnight Monday. Here are some questions and answers about the looming deadline and what might happen if compromise isn't reached.

Q. How did we get here and whose fault is it if the government shuts down?

A. Fault is in the eye of the beholder. According the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, the House and Senate must pass 13 appropriations bills to fund various departments of the federal government by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.

But in 10 of the last 17 years, Congress never made this deadline and shutdowns occurred when stopgap measures couldn't be found to keep the lights on. House Republicans want to delay and defund the Affordable Care Act, whose insurance exchanges open Tuesday. On Thursday, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., blamed a "tea party temper tantrum" in the Republican House caucus for what she said is potentially damaging brinksmanship.

A Pew Research Center poll earlier this month indicated slightly more people would blame Republicans (39 percent) than would blame President Barack Obama (36 percent) if a shutdown occurs.

Q. What's being done to prepare for a shutdown?

A. Government agencies are already preparing by deciding who is "essential" and who isn't. Essential employees need to work, although they may not be paid. There may be more furloughs, too.

Q. Hasn't the government shut down before?

A. Yes: six times between 1977 and 1980, and nine times between 1981 and 1996. The most famous and most recent was from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. That 21-day shutdown spawned, among other things, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when furloughs among White House staff meant interns ranged more widely and had more access to the president. During that time, roughly 284,000 federal workers were furloughed. About 475,000 "mission critical" employees worked without paychecks.

Q. Weren't a lot of government employees furloughed already this year?

A. Yes. Almost half of the federal workforce had shortened hours as a result of another fiscal battle that set up automatic cuts known as sequestration. Government workers also haven't had a pay raise in three years.

Q. Does Congress still get paid?

A. Yes, lawmakers are categorized as "essential." But they have to decide who on their staffs are essential and send the rest home

Q. How about the president and political staff?

A. They'll be on the job, although some White House staffers will be furloughed.

Q. How much does it cost to shut down the government?

A. There's already been a lot of time spent preparing for the shut-down at an unknown cost. But the last shutdown in 1996 cost taxpayers $1.6 billion, according to estimates from the Office of Management and Budget.

Q. How does a shutdown end?

A. It ends when both the House and Senate agree to identical spending plans for the fiscal year that last Tuesday -- or at least for some part of the coming year -- and the president signs it into law. Public reaction to the shutdown will likely be the deciding factor.

Q. How is a government shutdown likely to affect everybody else, such as nonfederal employees?

A. Don't plan on visiting national parks, seeing the new baby panda by video cam at the Smithsonian's Washington Zoo or Dorothy's ruby slippers in the National Museum of American History.

You can fly: Air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration screeners are deemed essential workers. But if you want to travel abroad, you better have had your passport renewed; delays were seen in that process 17 years ago.

Q. Will federal loans be affected?

A. Yes. If you are looking for a federal loan to buy a house or assist your small business, you're out of luck until the shutdown ends.

Q. What about student loans?

A. Most students have already received loan proceeds for this semester, but new applications will be delayed.

Q. What happens with Social Security benefits?

A. The electronic deposits will be made with no delay.

Q. Will safety and security be affected?

A. A shutdown doesn't shut down everything. Some agencies by law stay open, including those that provide for national security -- such as the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency -- and those conducting foreign relations essential to safety.

People who provide benefit payments or conduct essential services protecting life and property will also be exempt. Borders will be patrolled, veterans in hospitals will be cared for, federal prison guards will be on the job, and military personnel will report

to work. But some civilians at military bases may be sent home.

Q. What about mail delivery?

A. Post offices will stay open and the U.S. Postal Service will make deliveries.

Q. Will the rollout of the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges be affected?

A. No, because it's not funded through the annual appropriations process.

Q. If the House and Senate reach a budget agreement, does that avert a government shutdown?

A. Yes, but probably only temporarily. House Republicans have set conditions for raising the debt ceiling through December 2014 on a whole host of issues backed by their tea party caucus. These including approving the Keystone XL pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Canada to Texas, killing certain Environmental Protection Agency regulations, passing certain tort reform measures and, of course, delaying and defunding Obamacare.

Technically, the country reached its debt limit some months ago and has been using extraordinary measures to pay its bills. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said this week the government would run out of money by Oct. 17.

           

(Reach Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan at sullivanb@shns.com . Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com .)

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