A man walks across the Washington Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Jason Reed—Reuters
By Ian Salisbury
December 6, 2017

As if America didn’t have enough to worry about right now—from an ongoing investigation into Russia’s potential influence on the 2016 election to Southern California’s raging wildfires—bickering in Washington could now cause a U.S. federal government shutdown.

Unless lawmakers can get their act together by Friday, the federal government is going to run out of money. And while Republicans are aiming to pass a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown and fund government through late December 2017, the task is complicated by a standoff between President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats over immigration and other issues.

The upshot is that the government may actually shut down for the first time since 2013. (The nation narrowly avoided another government shutdown in August, when Trump eased some of his demands at the last minute.)

Of course, even a shutdown doesn’t mean everything Washington does will come to halt. Many of the government’s most critical operations are either deemed “essential” or else are funded outside the annual budget process — and these will continue unimpeded. National defense, air traffic control and Social Security and Medicare payments all fall into one of these categories.

Still, a government shutdown is possible, and could affect millions of Americans, from federal employees to vacationers to cadets at the nation’s service academies. Here are 15 ways a government shutdown could affect you — and what you should expect from the hiatus.

You’re a government employee.

Even if critical government workers stay on the job, hundreds of thousands of others would face furloughs without pay. Following the last government shutdown, which lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, 2013, the Obama administration reported that as many as 850,000 government workers were barred from their jobs for a total of 6.6 million work days.

You’re in the military.

Active-duty soldiers, sailors, and other military personnel will continue to report for duty. But they could still face hardships. Under current law, they would still be required to work during a government shutdown, but they would not get paid.

Last time around Congress stepped in with a special fix, but it would need to do so again this time. There is no guarantee that this would happen, says Forrest Allen, associated director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

There may be other hassles too. While critical medical care would continue during a government shutdown, service members may have to put off elective procedures and dental visits. Duties could also change as soldiers are reassigned to handle work typically performed by civilian Defense Department employees who are furloughed.

(One piece of good news: While veterans endured a number of hardships in 2013, the government has since changed the way it funds Veterans Affairs operations. As a result veterans’ services should not be directly affected by a 2017 government shutdown, although veterans could still see backlogs and delays, according to the officers’ group.)

You’re a senior.

The government will continue to send out Social Security checks and operate Medicare. But during past shutdowns, retirees have faced delays having paperwork processed when they enrolled or needed a benefits change.

In 2013, the Social Security Administration delayed 1,600 medical disability reviews and 10,000 Supplemental Security Income redeterminations on each day of the shutdown, a government report found.

You want to travel domestically.

Air traffic controllers and TSA luggage screeners will continue to work during a government shutdown, meaning travel will not stop as the holiday season approaches.

But a lot of popular destinations will be shutting their gates. The nation’s roughly 400 national parks are likely to close, although some could remain open if state governments decide to pick up the tab temporarily. During the 2013 shutdown, the National Park Service estimated that it was forced to turn away more than 700,000 visitors a day. The Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums in Washington D.C and New York, in addition to the Washington zoo, are also likely to close.

You want to travel abroad.

Traveling during a shutdown also gets more complicated if you’re heading overseas. During past government shutdowns, travelers have faced long lines at customs (upwards of an hour and a half) and had trouble renewing passports due to backlogged applications.

You need something from the IRS.

During the 2013 government shutdown, the IRS was forced to furlough 90% of its staff, according the Center for American Progress. Ultimately, that delayed about $2.2 billion in tax refunds to individuals and $1.5 billion to businesses. The previous shutdown also delayed the IRS preparation for 2014’s tax season by two weeks. And the IRS also plays a key role for homebuyers — more on that in a minute.

You have a court case.

Federal court cases, including bankruptcy, civil and criminal cases, could face delays during a government shutdown. During 2013, the Southern District of New York, which frequently handles Wall Street cases, suspended more than 750 cases, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Meanwhile, the District of New Mexico halted all civil cases involving federal agencies, the office said.

You want to buy a home.

The federal government plays a big role in the mortgage market, with IRS verifying borrowers’ incomes (see above) and agencies like the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs guaranteeing loans. Last time around problems were widespread, with as many as 17% of scheduled October 2013 home closings delayed, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.

You own stocks.

A government shutdown can send jitters through the stock market. Investment firm LPL recently looked at 18 previous standoffs, ranging from a single day to 21 days, going back to 1976. LPL found that the S&P tumbled about 0.6% on average when the government was closed. That may seem like a hiccup — but it translates into $150 billion in lost wealth for stock market investors.

You receive food stamps.

Recipients of SNAP, the formal name for the federal food stamps program, should expect benefits cards to stop working after the first few days of a government shutdown, according to a Q&A published by the Department of Agriculture.

You are looking for a job.

When private-sector economists tallied up the broader economic effects of the 2013 government shutdown — from federal workers’ lost wages to delayed home closings and other disruptions — they estimated that the distraction shaved anywhere from 0.2% to 0.5% off of fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth. And slower growth meant fewer job opportunities: The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that the economy created fewer 120,000 fewer private-sector jobs than it otherwise might have that month.

You’re a student.

Most college students can ignore the impending government shutdown, but not all. Life at the nation’s five service academies could be affected dramatically. In 2013, the Merchant Marine Academy essentially closed its doors, while at the Air Force Academy roughly one-fifth of classes were canceled, according to Politico. At other universities, researchers faced funding delays — and an investigation of university sexual assault policies was put on hold.

You are enrolling in a clinical trial.

A government shutdown would likely mean widespread furloughs at both the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. That could hamper the government’s ability to track disease outbreaks and delay clinical trials for new drugs. In 2013, dozens of patients, including children with cancer, had drug trials delayed while the government resolved its budget impasse.

You have a child in Head Start.

Ahead of the 2013 government shutdown, the National Head Start Association forecast that as many as 19,000 children would be locked out of programs. In the end, most locations managed to remain open, but a government report found more than 6,000 children in seven states were turned away for up to nine days — and that was only after private philanthropists stepped in to cover costs.

You want to reach your senator or U.S. representative.

The U.S. constitution ensures that members of Congress will get paid no matter what. (We know you’re relieved at that.) But Congressional staffers can be deemed non-essential and sent home during a government shutdown.

In 2013, a HuffPost count found 36 Democratic senators and seven Republican ones closed their D.C. offices during the shutdown at the time. Many other senators furloughed most staff or closed home state offices, according to Huffpost.

In other words, that angry phone call you wanted to make? It may have to wait.

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