WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has shut down, and the world is still turning. Some government functions linking the United States to the rest of world will be affected, however, as will many domestic services. Here’s a primer to better understand the crisis and its potential impacts.
1. How will a shutdown affect U.S.-global relations?
Consular Operations: U.S. consular operations overseas will remain operational as long as there are sufficient funds to support them, according to the State Department. That means the State Department will keep processing foreign applications for U.S. visas and passports, and providing services to U.S. citizens overseas as long as it can.
Consular Staff: The State Department will apply a furlough to Locally Employed Staff, including foreign nationals, depending on local labor laws in each country. In general, Locally Employed Staff will be required to a) report to work as directed by their supervisor, b) be given a paid absence, or c) be placed on ordinary furlough status.
Diplomacy: State Department travel will be limited to that necessary to maintain foreign relations essential to national security, or dealing with emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property. So, for example, travel will be allowed for the negotiation of major treaties and for providing essential services to refugees, but not to give an inspirational speech at a foreign university.
Green Cards: Most employees working for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will stay on the job, which means applications for U.S. green cards, or legal permanent residency, should continue as usual. USCIS is funded primarily from fees people pay for immigration services and benefits, which means its employees are not dependent on Congressionally-approved appropriations bills.
Homeland Security: The Department of Homeland Security’s Procedures Relating to a Federal Funding Hiatus designate about 86 percent of its more than 200,000 employees as “essential” for the “safety of human life or protection of property.”
Work will continue as usual for most Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection employees, airport screening officers, U.S. Secret Service agents, and other people in passenger processing and cargo inspection at ports of entry and the detention of drug traffickers or undocumented immigrants. The E-Verify system is not considered essential, however, so businesses will not be able to electronically check the immigration status of job applicants.
Military Operations: The military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel will stay on duty, although they will be paid later. About 400,000 people, half of the Defense Department’s civilian employees, will be sent home without pay.
Tourism: Foreign tourists taking a U.S. vacation might be disappointed if they were planning on trekking through the Grand Canyon in Arizona or the National Zoo in Washington. The rangers who run these sites are considered “non-essential” federal employees, so the national parks will be closed.
2. What economic impacts could there be on the U.S. and the world?
If the shutdown lasts a few days, any financial hardship would be felt mostly by furloughed workers.
If the shutdown lasts a few weeks, tourism revenues could slip and consumers and businesses might think twice before spending.
If the shutdown is followed by a default on the federal debt, which could happen in a month if Congress does not act, foreign investors would really start to worry about the strength of the U.S. economy. They could lose confidence in the U.S. ability to pay back loans, triggering higher interest rates from foreign lenders. Even worse, foreign investors may not feel confident buying U.S. bonds.
3. Why has the U.S. government shut down?
The government is like a car. Its fuel is money. If the car isn’t refueled, it stops running. The U.S. Congress is responsible for refueling that car, and it does that by passing spending bills. The new budget year begins on Tuesday, and Congress is nowhere close to agreeing on spending laws. As a result, the government, without funding, will slow to minimal speed.
4. Why can’t lawmakers agree on a spending bill?
The Republican and Democratic Parties disagree on a plan to provide health care insurance to millions of uninsured Americans. Republican members of the House of Representatives don’t like the plan, known as Obamacare, and are refusing to sign an appropriations bill that includes funding for it. Democratic members of the Senate are refusing to sign a spending plan that does not fund Obamacare.
5. Has this happened before?
Yes, the government has shut down 17 times since 1977. The last shutdown was the longest, lasting 21 days from December 16, 1995, to January 5, 1996.
6. How will the shutdown proceed this time?
Federal agencies are alerting their staff as to who is “essential” and who is “non-essential.” Staff deemed essential will continue working. Everyone else will be furloughed, going home without pay. Essential employees will be paid, but only after an appropriations bill is passed.
7. How many U.S. government workers could be furloughed?
Nearly 2.2 million people work for the federal govenment, excluding uniformed members of the military and U.S. Postal Service career employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Of the 2.2 million, approximately 800,000 are considered “non-essential” and could be sent home without pay, according to The Washington Post.
8. Can a furloughed worker work?
They could, but there would be consequences. Technically, it’s illegal for a government worker to perform any of their duties during a shutdown. That even includes checking work email.
Clarification: The updated version of this article uses the most recently available OPM federal workforce numbers, set at approximately 2.2 million.