This Is What Actually Shuts Down During a Government Shutdown

Talk of a U.S. government shutdown is getting louder. Without agreement on the 12 appropriations bills that guide annual spending, the U.S. has been operating since Oct. 1 on temporary funding provided by a “continuing resolution.” Funding was due to run out after Dec. 8 but has twice been extended, most recently through Jan. 19. Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress may need to keep passing short-term extensions until they reach accord on a trillion-dollar spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year. If the deal-making breaks down, the U.S. will encounter what’s officially called a “spending gap,” which triggers a carefully prescribed, but still disruptive, halt to Washington’s work.

1. What happens if the government shuts down?

Many, though not all, federal government functions are frozen, and many, though not all, federal employees are furloughed. Agencies in the executive branch, the one with the largest workforce and budget, regularly review shutdown plans that spell out what work must continue, and how many employees will be retained, during a “short” lapse (one to five days) and one that lasts longer.

2. Which government functions cease?

The ones that draw headlines are closures of national parks, monuments and the Smithsonian museums in Washington. Other activities that generally stop, at least if the shutdown lasts more than a couple days, are processing of applications for passports and visas; new enrollments in experimental treatments under the National Institutes for Health; and the maintenance of U.S. government websites, including ones used by businesses and researchers. Mortgage approvals can be delayed by furloughs at the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Housing Administration. The last shutdown, which lasted 16 days in 2013, delayed approval of about 200 drilling applications at the Bureau of Land Management, consideration of 700 applications for small business loans totaling $140 million, and the start of the Alaska crab season, which relies on harvest levels apportioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to a 2013 report by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

3. Which government functions continue?

Activities related to national security (like the military services), safety and order (air traffic control, law enforcement) and medical care (veterans’ hospitals) are among the essential activities that carry on. So does the U.S. mail, since the Postal Service has…

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