The Great Government Shutdown of 2011 (if it happens) may, almost certainly, be very different than the Great Government Shutdown of 1995-96 which very definitely happened. Unless Congress and the White House reach agreement on a new Continuing Resolution, many government activities will shutdown as of midnight Friday.
Lots of current federal workers were around for the last shutdown, according to the Congressional Research Service, which lasted 20 days. Followed by a blizzard that shut down D.C. for another week.
First the good news:
The reason that this shutdown will be different is because the government has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington changed the country, and the government, forever.
Because of 9/11 (and lessons learned in the 95-96 shutdown) more federal workers in more agencies will be exempt from the shutdown this time around. That’s because more employees in more agencies are in essential/emergency jobs that will continue. This includes but isn’t limited to workers in defense operations, intelligence fields, law enforcement and public safety.
Air traffic control personnel will be on duty. So will federal hospital personnel. Since this is the tax season, the IRS may not be offering telephone advice, but it will likely first process payments from taxpayers, followed by refunds to them.
The Postal Service will not be directly impacted by any shutdown. Congress, of course, will continue to be in session (one hesitates to use the term “work”) and continue to get paid for the duration.
Social Security, which furloughed most of its staffers during the last shutdown, probably won’t make that same mistake. When people don’t get their checks, or even think they won’t get their checks, Congress takes a lot of heat.
Now the moment of truth…
The Bad News: While fewer feds are likely to be told to stay home in the event of a March 4 shutdown, those who do may be in a heap of financial trouble. After every other shutdown in recent years – under Republicans and Democrats – Congress has voted to make feds whole. Those who didn’t get paid during the shutdown period got their salary money, although in some cases it was a week later than normal. But this time may be different. There is no guarantee that if furloughed you will get paid this time, like you did last time.
There is a GOP proposal in the House to furlough federal workers for 10 days (most likely one day per month for 10 months). That may or may not survive the House, much less the Senate or the White House. But if feds are furloughed 4, 5, 10 days (or however long the shutdown might last) it might be easier for furlough-proponents to simply block efforts to approve back pay for those employees. “The furlough would be a done deal,” a federal lobbyist said, “and it would be like yanking a bandage off quickly rather than easing it off.”
For first-hand accounts of the last shutdown, click here