Looming Crisis

Looming Crisis

Understanding the impacts and consequences of a Government Shutdown

By the time you read this, I can only hope that Congress has resolved the impending full government shutdown, but as I write this column the Sunday, Oct. 1 funding deadline looms. At this time, it is also unknown how long a potential shutdown could last. A federal government shutdown will jeopardize the paychecks of nearly 300,000 Virginians, including more than 140,000 civilian federal workers and more than 150,000 military members. I am very much against a government shutdown because it will harm Virginia families’ economic stability. I have heard from my constituents, and they are very apprehensive and worried. These tactics by the Republican majority in Congress are dangerous for our nation and especially for Virginia, and represent the kind of harmful consequences we would see if Republicans take control of our state legislature in the November elections.

What is a government shutdown? Many federal government agencies and programs rely on annual funding appropriations passed by Congress. Each year, Congress must pass and the President must sign budget legislation for the next fiscal year, consisting of 12 appropriations bills, one for each Appropriations subcommittee. Congress has only enacted one of the 12 bills for FY 2024 that make up the discretionary spending budget. In a “shutdown,” federal agencies must discontinue all non-essential discretionary functions until new funding legislation is passed and signed into law. Essential services continue to function, as do mandatory spending programs.

What services are affected in a shutdown and how? Each federal agency develops its own shutdown plan, following guidance released in previous shutdowns and coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The plan identifies which government activities may not continue until appropriations are restored, requiring employee furloughs and the halting of many agency activities. Essential services – many of which are related to public safety – continue to operate, with payments covering any obligations incurred only when appropriations are enacted.

The public is likely to feel the impact of a shutdown in several ways. For example, in a full shutdown:

* Social Security and Medicare: Checks are sent out, but benefit verification as well as card issuance would cease.

* Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Potential delays in issuing benefits.

* Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): 127,000 Virginians will lose WIC benefits, nutritional assistance for low-income and pregnant or nursing parents, as well as infants and children up to 5 years old. Half of babies born in the US benefit from this program. 

* Environmental and Food Inspection: Site inspections for hazardous waste, drinking water, and chemical facilities may halt.

* National Parks: Visitor services are discontinued, leading to financial losses.

* Air Travel: Longer lines and potential travel disruptions.

* Health and Human Services: The National Institutes of Health may stop admitting new patients.

* Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Delays in tax refunds and other services.

Federal employees will be most affected by a shutdown. A full shutdown would be more extensive than the partial shutdown that started in December 2018. In 2013 and early 2018, approximately 850,000 out of 2.1 million non-postal federal employees were furloughed. Furloughed employees do not receive paychecks but are guaranteed back pay.

How and why do mandatory programs continue during a shutdown? Mandatory spending is authorized for multi-year periods or permanently, so it generally continues during a shutdown. However, some services associated with mandatory programs may be diminished if there is a discretionary component to their funding.

How many times has the government shut down? Since the modern budget process was introduced in 1976, there have been 22 “funding gaps,” with four “true” shutdowns where operations were affected for more than one business day.

Government shutdowns do not save money. In fact, shutdowns tend to cost money due to contingency planning, uncollected fees, and back pay for furloughed employees.

Congress can avoid a full government shutdown by passing appropriations bills or continuing resolutions. A continuing resolution temporarily funds the government in the absence of full appropriations bills. Continuing resolutions can fund specific appropriations or all discretionary functions for the entire year. Continuing resolutions are frequently used when appropriations cannot be agreed upon by a deadline and they continue funding without regard to changing policy needs, wasting time, and disrupting agency activities.

The potential for a government shutdown is a serious concern that can disrupt the lives of millions of Americans and have lasting economic consequences. It is crucial for Congress to pass appropriations bills or continuing resolutions to ensure that vital government services continue without interruption. Shutdowns are costly, inefficient, and detrimental to the well-being of the nation. It's time for the Republicans running Congress to prioritize the stability of our government and the livelihoods of its employees and citizens.