WASHINGTON – The Pentagon would furlough 400,000 civilian workers and temporarily stop paying death benefits to military families. The National Park Service would close all 401 national parks and give overnight campers two days to leave. Calls to the IRS would go unanswered.
Those are among the effects that the public probably will notice first if federal agencies start shutting down Tuesday because Congress has failed to pass a bill to provide money for the new fiscal year.
Agencies began disclosing their contingency plans Friday, and the announcements immediately became part of the partisan back-and-forth over whether the government will shut down and who is to blame.
Unlike some other Washington budget battles, the effect of a shutdown would quickly become visible. Approximately half the government’s civilian workforce, about 1.2 million employees, is expected to face furloughs. The Pentagon would have to stop paying service members, although they would still be required to report to duty.
The first paychecks that would not be issued – if a shutdown lasted long enough – would be the ones due Oct. 15, said Undersecretary of Defense Robert F. Hale, the Pentagon’s top financial officer, who briefed reporters. In a shutdown, the department would also be forced to stop other payments, including death benefits, Hale said.
“We would have no authority to pay the money, and in that case the payment would be delayed,” he said.
As the nation moved closer to a government shutdown, the political protagonists traded blame Sunday over whose fault it will be if federal employees are furloughed and some federal services are closed.
The Republican-controlled House was in recess Sunday after voting overnight to keep the government funded through Dec. 15 but delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic-controlled Senate remained in weekend recess, refusing to come back until its scheduled return at 2 p.m. today. And President Barack Obama remained out of sight Sunday.
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., predicted that when the Senate returns this afternoon, it will reject the House’s plan and then send the budget – minus a delay in the health care law or any other add-ons – back to the House.
“It’s going to be rejected again and we’re going to face the prospect of shutting down, again,” Durbin said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
A shutdown would grow increasingly difficult to manage over time, as the military runs out of options for delaying operations and is prohibited from entering into any new contracts with vendors, he said. “The severity of effects would grow quickly if it turns out to be long,” Hale said.
Because Congress has failed to pass any of the money bills needed to fund government agencies, most will have to begin shutting down when the new budget year begins Tuesday. The exceptions are programs that do not require annual appropriations, including Social Security and Medicare, and those deemed essential to protect life, property and national security. That means that fire suppression missions would continue, for example, but parks would close.
Furloughed employees could be paid retroactively if Congress passed a law authorizing it. Retroactive pay was approved after the shutdowns of the mid-1990s but is not guaranteed.
According to the Census Bureau, there are 169,000 civilian government workers in California, 124,000 in Maryland, 89,000 in Florida and 52,000 in Illinois. Most face the possibility of being furloughed.
The last time a comparable shutdown happened, in 1995 and 1996, the effect on the economy was substantial. Closing parks cost nearby businesses about $14 million each day, according to the Congressional Research Service. The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association projects that the hit this time would be more than twice as large.
At the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the U.S. Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, most of the 231,117 workers would remain on the job. Officials said 31,295 would be furloughed.
By contrast, more than half of the Department of Health and Human Services’ 78,000 workers would be furloughed.
The Internal Revenue Service would halt taxpayer services such as responding to questions and conducting audits.
“If the government is closed, people with appointments related to examinations (audits), collections, appeals or taxpayer advocate cases should assume their meetings are canceled,” the Treasury announced. “IRS personnel would reschedule those meetings at a later date.”
Contractors and other recipients of government grants have followed the news anxiously. Many are positioned to weather a brief shutdown without any major disruptions, but could find themselves in trouble during a prolonged stalemate.
The repeated budget crises of the last few years also have taken a toll on federal workers. Some Cabinet officials Friday urged their employees not to take it personally.
“I know these kinds of actions … don’t feel very supportive,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a video message to employees. “I want you to know, and I know the American people know, that the work we do is very, very important.”
One group that does not face a loss of paychecks, however, are members of Congress.
“Due to their constitutional responsibilities and a permanent appropriation for congressional pay, Members of Congress are not subject to furlough,” the Congressional Research Service said.