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What Does a U.S. Government Shutdown Mean?

Passports, park admissions and poo are among Pacific Standard's list of 10 things that will be affected if the budget-less U.S. government shuts down this weekend.

The federal government has been coy, even with its own employees, about exactly what a government shutdown would look like — who'd have to work and who wouldn't, which services would be considered essential and which ones eligible for suspension. Administration officials may be hoping that if they don't talk too much about the alternative, a budget agreement will materialize in Congress by Friday night.

But government's last big shutdown spanning New Year's in 1995-96 — at 21 days, the longest hiatus in D.C. history — offers a glimpse of what could happen come this weekend. This list of 10 potentially affected programs brings home one of the most startling realities about a shutdown: The federal government is responsible for a lot more than war and taxes, and Americans who seldom recognize Uncle Sam's help when they get it may come to miss him dearly once he's gone.

1. During the last shutdown, the cleanup of toxic waste was halted at 609 Superfund sites, with 2,400 workers sent home, according to a report compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Government protocol during a shutdown calls for continuing work that is essential to "protect life and property," but this may not include threats from toxic waste.

2. That CRS report documented another impact for human health — during the last shutdown, the National Institutes of Health had to stop answering hotlines devoted to diseases. Agencies of the federal government such as the CDC operate a number of such hotlines, offering resources on everything from AIDS to immunization.

3. Delinquent child-support cases were delayed during the last shutdown. These were among the numerous law-enforcement investigations held up by a standstill in work not tied directly to border security or the safety of federal installations like prisons and waterways. Work on 3,500 bankruptcy cases was also suspended in the mid-'90s, according to the CRS report.

4. Parks and federal tourist destinations closed during the last shutdown, and they undoubtedly would this time around as well. This would include national parks, battlefields (amid the sesquicentennial of the Civil War!), Smithsonian museums and trips up the Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty. The resulting loss in tourism would affect nongovernment entities as well, from restaurants to hotels to airlines.

Who's Minding the Store?

While it's not entirely clear which programs and employees will be affected in a U.S. government shutdown, here are some that definitely will not:
• Air traffic controllers
• Deployed troops
• Airport TSA screeners
• The U.S. Mint
• Federal prison guards
• Congress and the Office of the President
• The Treasury
• The Postal Service
• The Border Patrol and Coast Guard

5. The federal government now processes payments to recipients of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare electronically. But with staff at many of these agencies forced to stay home during a shutdown, new users of these programs could have a hard time enrolling in them. During the 1995 shutdown, Medicare was estimated to have 10,000 new applications a day, and a shutdown this spring would be bad timing for the first of the baby boomers about to turn 65.

6. Benefits decisions for veterans could similarly be delayed. During the November 1995 shutdown, The Washington Post (which has collected online some earlier shutdown articles from its archives) reported on an injured veteran who had waited years for an appointment with the Board of Veterans Appeals, only to have it canceled in the shutdown.

7. Federal workers who process passport and visa applications will probably also be staying home. This would affect foreign tourists, Americans hoping to travel abroad, foreign workers living here who need to renew their visas, and universities and foreign exchange programs sending students back and forth.

8. During the last shutdown, The Washington Post noted one particularly ugly impact — manure piled up in a parking lot of the National Zoo when it couldn't be transported elsewhere for composting (zookeepers, however, did continue feeding the animals). The zoo says it has updated its waste-disposal plans in the event of another shutdown.

9. Research facilities like presidential libraries and the Library of Congress will likely shut their doors. The Post reported in 1995 that the Library of Congress' computer system went offline the moment the government shut down. At the time, it processed 1 million transactions a day.

10. Activities essential to public health and safety are supposed to continue, and this includes, according to the CRS, "safe use of food and drugs." But clinical trials and decisions on regulating new drugs and devices could be delayed, and government scientists will likely be among those furloughed. Less clear is the fate of government inspectors.