The Feds Are Prepared For A Shutdown. Are You?

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Budget experts say it's unlikely that Social Security and veterans checks would stop coming during a government shutdown. i

Budget experts say it's unlikely that Social Security and veterans checks would stop coming during a government shutdown. Bradley C Bower/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Bradley C Bower/AP
Budget experts say it's unlikely that Social Security and veterans checks would stop coming during a government shutdown.

Budget experts say it's unlikely that Social Security and veterans checks would stop coming during a government shutdown.

Bradley C Bower/AP

Time is running out for Republicans and Democrats to come up with a budget deal. If they don't reach one in eight days, the federal government could shut down — much like it did about 15 years ago.

In case that happens, all federal agencies are required to draw up contingency plans. And when budget discussions on Capitol Hill start to disintegrate, they hustle to update them. So if you're planning to do anything soon that requires the hand of a bureaucrat or a visit to federally owned property, you might need to do the same.

Other than the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who could be sent home without paychecks, the first people to notice a government shutdown would very likely be some vacationers.

Take the Schissel family, for example, who is visiting Washington, D.C.

"We were a little concerned we booked the vacation several weeks before we were aware of the shutdown," says Scott Schissel, who is traveling with his wife and their two kids. "Thankfully, we got here just in time."

"I assume we would have been locked out of the White House and the Capitol building and potentially even the national monuments, which we did all this week," says the Westwood, Mass., resident.

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During the shutdowns in 1995 and '96, more than 360 national parks from Yosemite to the Washington Monument — and dozens of museums — closed their doors.

Alice Rivlin, head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, remembers it well, and she recalls how those shutdowns affected more than just vacationers.

"Things that people need to get approved when they are doing ordinary business like buying a house or processing a loan — those things come to a screeching halt," she says.

The OMB helps agencies figure out what they should and shouldn't close. In 1996, the Clinton administration had to call back nearly 50,000 Social Security employees because of backups with new claims and other services.

Rivlin says figuring out what's essential isn't so easy.

"The one I didn't expect was the laboratory animals," Rivlin says. "You can't just walk away from the building and leave the animals to starve. You have to have somebody there to feed the animals. Now, you wouldn't have thought of that offhand. But it's an example of a lot of little things that can't be left to chance once you are shutting down the government."

The rule is that federal workers stay on the job during a shutdown if they're involved in protecting life or property. So last time around, air traffic controllers and prison guards kept working. An agency also stays open if its funding source is independent from Congress, such as the post office.

But passport services, which you might find at a post office, would be an exception to the rule. In the last shutdowns, some 200,000 passports went unprocessed.

Moreover, 3,500 bankruptcy cases stopped cold.

That's because even with automated forms for such federal services, someone has to be on the other end to process them. So take note: Any shutdown this spring would run smack into tax season and student loan applications.

Despite any inconveniences to taxpayers, lawmakers would still collect their paychecks. They're exempt from shutdowns, though some Democrats are pushing a bill to change that.

Lawmakers have yet to agree to take up that measure, as they're in a standoff about what to do before next Friday when government funding runs out.

If they can't reach an agreement, Schissel says, so be it.

"I think it's important to come to grips with a realistic budget," Schissel says. "If it takes a budget shutdown for both sides to reach a fair compromise, then it's probably worth it."

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