The U.S. government is set to shut down next weekend unless Congress manages to strike a last-minute agreement to pass a dozen spending bills before the Sept. 30 funding deadline, an unlikely scenario that has left many Americans anxiously wondering how a potential government shutdown would impact them.
During a shutdown, the government can only spend money on essential services, such as those related to law enforcement and public safety. That means hundreds of thousands of federal workers won’t receive a timely paycheck, while others will be furloughed, which could inflict severe financial hardships on some American families at a time when many are still struggling with elevated prices due to inflation and impending student loan repayments.
A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to approve new spending for federal agencies, which require congressional authorization each year to expend funds. As of Monday, Congress is yet to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills that need to be signed into law to keep the government running as House Republicans remain divided over top-line spending levels and various policy concessions.
The last government shutdown occurred in December 2018, when most government activity came to a halt for 34 days, the longest in the modern era.
It isn’t just federal workers who will feel the effects of a shutdown. Here are some of the ways a federal government shutdown will impact Americans.
Federal employees and military personnel
If the government shuts down, tens of thousands of federal employees would be furloughed and sent home without pay. Those who are deemed essential workers, such as employees in public safety and national security, would report to work without pay. Once federal funding resumes, the government is required by law to repay federal employees and military personnel. Federal contractors would not be compensated for missed time.
Each federal agency decides which services and employees are essential, which typically includes law enforcement officers, national security agents, active duty military personnel, and federal prison guards. Members of the military and federal law enforcement, for example, would continue going to work, while civilian personnel working for the Defense Department would be furloughed.
Federal employees should note that those who work during a shutdown when they aren’t supposed to could face fines or a prison term under the Antideficiency Act.
National parks, public spaces, and airports
Recreational facilities funded by the federal government would be forced to close, meaning travelers and tourists may be unable to visit national park facilities or the Smithsonian museums in Washington during a shutdown. The National Park Service estimated that a 2013 government shutdown led to a $500 million loss in visitor spending nationwide.
Some airports may also experience disruptions and delays, such as during the 2019 shutdown when air traffic controllers working without pay threatened to walk off the job—a move that helped end the shutdown. Passport offices in certain regions could also close, causing inconvenience for those planning international travel.
Federal safety-net programs
While food stamps and other nutrition aid programs would continue during a shutdown, federal agencies may have to reduce support after the Sept. 30 funding deadline if the shutdown persists for an extended period. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, for example, which provides food and vegetable benefits, is already facing a funding crisis, with the White House requesting Congress approve $1.4 billion in emergency funding for the program in late August.
The White House estimates that roughly 10,000 children would lose access to childcare starting in October as disruptions to programs like Head Start, which offers grants to childcare organizations, could force some childcare centers to close.
With disaster relief efforts in Maui and Florida underway after recent wildfires and hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has warned that its Disaster Relief Fund is dangerously low and could be depleted if the government shuts down without approving emergency funding. “A government shutdown will slow down our recovery efforts,” Rep. Jill Tokuda, who represents the Maui area in Congress, told TIME in August.
What remains open during a shutdown?
Agencies that have already received funding approval or operate on a permanent funding basis would continue to operate as usual. For instance, the Postal Service and entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, would continue to run during a shutdown because they are funded by permanent appropriations that do not need to be renewed every year.
Veterans Affairs benefits, including pensions and disability checks, will also continue as normal under a shutdown.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will also continue normal operations during a government shutdown—meaning the agency’s 83,000 workers would not be furloughed—due to funding approved through Congress last year. Taxpayers remain obligated to fulfill their tax obligations, and services like tax return processing carry on unaffected.
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