What to expect if the federal government shuts down

Will life be different if we wake up Tuesday morning and the federal government is without a budget?

Not much for some people. But for workers in federal agencies and civilian employees at military facilities in Snohomish County and throughout the state, it could be quite significant.

You almost certainly won’t be able to obtain a passport, visit Mount Rainier National Park or drop by the Internal Revenue Service office to get a question answered.

It’s also possible the Department of Agriculture won’t conduct routine inspections and the Environmental Protection Agency won’t work at all on pending permits.

Mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will continue, which means checks will get written and coverage provided. But customer service may grind to a halt and new enrollments may not be handled quickly.

While service personnel will be on duty at the Everett Naval Station and other military outposts, they won’t get paid until the political fighting between Congress and the president ends.

And the Department of Defense has estimated half its civilian workforce won’t be working and won’t be paid.

No one can say for sure what will occur though today the federal Office of Management and Budget may issue a report filling in a few blanks.

It will probably draw from contingency plans prepared in 2011, the last time Congress approached this brink, and the experience of the last shutdown in 1996.

Two years ago, it was estimated 800,000 of 2.1 million federal employees would have been furloughed had a shutdown occurred because they were assigned to non-essential services. Essential services then covered law enforcement, judiciary, border protection, medical care, air traffic control and national defense.

The last actual shutdowns occurred for five days in late 1995 and 21 days in early 1996. That’s when Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress tangled on levels of federal spending and budget-related policies.

In those shutdowns, 200,000 applications by U.S. citizens for passports did not get processed while more than 20,000 applications by foreigners for visas went unprocessed each day, according to information compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The National Park Service closed 368 sites and the National Institutes of Health didn’t answer calls to its hotline concerning diseases, the report states.

A lack of staff because of furloughs resulted in more than 10,000 Medicare applicants getting turned away every day, bankruptcy cases getting suspended and hiring of law enforcement officers postponed.

The current federal budget ends Monday night at the stroke of midnight. Lawmakers are trying to push through a resolution to continue spending for a short period of time but even the time frame is getting debated.

The GOP-controlled House approved a measure to keep government operating through Dec. 15 and sent it to the Senate last week. The bill contains a controversial provision to halt funding of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

“Today, the House voted not only to keep the government open, but also to control spending and protect the people of Eastern Washington from an unworkable health care law that is making life harder for them,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, said in a statement released after the vote.

“I’ve heard story after story from people at home, who are terrified of the implementation of the President’s health care law,” said McMorris Rodgers, who is chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and fourth in line in caucus leadership. “Today’s vote urges the Senate to take action, have that important debate and work with us to find a better solution for hard-working Americans.”

The Democrat-run Senate intends to reject the legislation as early as today. Senate leaders have said they will remove the provision on the health care law then approve a measure that funds government through Nov. 15. The revised bill, if passed, would be sent to the House for consideration.

“When we send this legislation back to the House, Republicans need to put an end to the Tea Party temper-tantrums and pass our bill without any gimmicks or games,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

“And after that, I hope we can leave the brinkmanship behind, so those of us on both sides of the aisle who believe in common-sense bipartisanship can move forward quickly with negotiations on a longer-term deal,” said Murray who is chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee and the highest ranking woman in Senate leadership.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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