How Much Gets Shuttered In A Shutdown?

In November 1996, an employee at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., hangs a sign explaining the reason for the museum closure. If Congress and the president can't reach an agreement on federal spending by March 4, the U.S. could see a repeat of that government shutdown.

In November 1996, an employee at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., hangs a sign explaining the reason for the museum closure. If Congress and the president can't reach an agreement on federal spending by March 4, the U.S. could see a repeat of that government shutdown. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

Here's the first thing you need to know about a government shutdown: The government wouldn't shut entirely.

Border Patrol agents, the FBI, Coast Guard, military personnel and the like would remain at their posts. So, too, would air traffic control, disaster workers and food inspectors. Why? Because they are classified as emergency or essential employees, needed to protect lives, property or national security.

The rule, then, is that federal agencies responsible for such vital services would remain open. But many other government services, which millions of Americans may feel are essential, could be halted unless Congress and the president can reach an agreement on federal spending by March 4. Agencies that rely on employees to handle large volumes of applications would be particularly hard hit if a shutdown were to go forward.

Until the Obama administration issues updated guidance, it will remain somewhat unclear exactly which offices will stay open. For now, here's a sampling of key functions that may — or may not — be affected by a government shutdown.

Mail Delivery: The U.S. Postal Service is self-funded, meaning it doesn't rely on congressional appropriations, so you would continue to receive your mail.

Social Security, Veterans' And Medicare Benefits: Recipients would receive their checks, and new applications for benefits would be processed.

But don't take for granted that the Social Security Administration will have its act together, based on the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns. During the 1995 stoppage, the agency furloughed too many workers and limited its ability to process benefits applications, forcing it to stop enrolling new beneficiaries. In the 1996 shutdown, the agency recalled enough employees to resume normal operations.

IRS: Heading into the peak of the tax-filing season, the agency would continue to process income tax returns that contain payments. But it very likely wouldn't have people to answer the taxpayer hot line. Nor would it have staff to process refunds, so many taxpayers would be forced to wait until the shutdown ended to get their money.

Federal Courts: Open for business because they perform essential law enforcement services.

Bankruptcies: During the 1990s shutdowns, some 3,500 cases paused because there were no workers on hand to process the reams of paperwork involved in bankruptcy proceedings. If it happens again this spring, expect the same result.

Passports: Travelers would be out of luck. Last time, the processing of more than 200,000 passport applications stalled.

Student Loans: Parents and college kids should anticipate a delay, again, because of a lack of staff to process the applications.

National Parks And Federal Historic Sites: From the National Zoo and Washington Monument to Yellowstone National Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District in Atlanta, these popular destinations would close.

That would not only inconvenience vacationers, potentially costing them money for trips already paid for, but deal a major blow to local hotels, restaurants and other businesses that rely on tourism.

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