In a government shutdown, not everything would halt

Essential services covered, but some fun may stop

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / March 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The threat dangles like a guillotine: If Republican and Democratic negotiators fail to forge a budget compromise, the federal government will shut down at the end of this week. Like a lot of political rhetoric, that’s overblown.

A federal “shutdown’’ is more like a massive downshift — the federal government reaches too deeply into the crevices of daily American life to close. Social Security payments would still be made. Air traffic controllers would scan the skies. The mail should arrive at the doorstep.

“Nobody wants the guards heading off from federal prisons, saying, ‘Sorry, no one’s paying us, we’re out of here,’ ’’ said Stuart Kasdin, a public policy professor at George Washington University who was a manager at the Office of Management and Budget during the last federal shutdowns, in the mid-1990s.

It’s unclear how many federal workers would actually receive furlough notices. But during the last shutdown at the end of 1995, only about 10 percent of the executive branch’s 2.8 million civilian workers were forced to take furloughs for as long as three weeks — about 280,000 workers.

The employees who keep gangsters and terrorists in federal prisons are among those exempt from being sent home on furlough.

What actually shuts down are the pieces of the bureaucracy considered nonessential — starting with the stuff Americans really like, such as the national parks. “The good parts are the parts that go,’’ said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat.

That means no family vacations to the Grand Canyon — access to the popular site would be closed in a shutdown. So would the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., so no family photos in front of the Spirit of St. Louis or the Hope Diamond.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, 368 National Park Service sites were shuttered, disappointing 7 million would-be visitors, according to reports from the Congressional Research Service.

Those shutdowns also created a variety of headaches no one foresaw: When workers at the National Institutes of Health were sent home, nobody was left to feed hungry lab animals. And no one anticipated the outcry when the Christmas tree on the National Mall in Washington went dark. “It was just such a minor expense anyway, but it was symbolic,’’ said Alice M. Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who headed the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton. “People didn’t think that closing down the government would mean that they would turn off the tree, for goodness’ sakes.’’

The threat of a shutdown in the coming weeks is real, even though Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say they hope to avoid one when the government’s stopgap budget expires Friday.

At issue is a Republican demand to cut $57 billion more from discretionary spending in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Democrats have countered with proposed cuts of some $6 billion, which leaves a wide gulf for negotiators to bridge. The House yesterday approved a three-week stopgap spending bill to buy time for a long-term deal to be hammered out. The measure moves to the Senate, which is expected to pass it. But both sides insist the other needs to give up more in negotiations.

Meanwhile, federal agencies are dusting off internal plans to furlough workers if the budget expires. The federal government began requiring its agencies to maintain shutdown plans in the early 1980s, said John F. Cooney, who was deputy general counsel for litigation and regulatory affairs in President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget.

Using current guidelines, those exempted from furloughs include:

■Medical employees who provide inpatient and emergency care.

■Border control agents and the Coast Guard.

■Security officers who protect dams and canals and other federal property.

■Those who oversee disaster assistance, and employees responsible for ensuring the operation of the nation’s money and banking system as well as the electrical power grid.

The Postal Service will continue delivering bills and catalogues through rain, sleet and the gloom of a shutdown. The uniformed US military is also exempt, as are presidential appointees and, for better or worse, the people with the power to cause a shutdown: the United States Congress.

Short shutdowns, usually just a few days each, happened occasionally in the 1970s and ’80s. But titanic battles over the budget resulted in a five-day shutdown in November 1995. That was just a dress rehearsal for the longest shutdown in history — from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. “There was a lot of annoyance — nothing probably life-threatening, but certainly an interruption to business and ordinary transactions that people want to have with their governments,’’ Rivlin said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking the spread of diseases such as AIDS and the flu; toxic waste removal at 609 sites was suspended. Work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases ceased, and investigations into delinquent child support cases were put on hold.

Massachusetts’ governor, Deval Patrick, who was an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration in the 1990s, said the last shutdown spawned “hilarious’’ internal conversations about who was essential. But the episode was awkward for the country, he said.

“It was embarrassing,’’ Patrick said. “This is the United States of America. We’re not some Third World [nation]. I think what the American people are watching to see is whether the members of the House and Senate can act like the grownups.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Globe reporter Theo Emery contributed to this report.