Federal Departments Lay Out Plans in the Event of a Government Shutdown
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — With the possibility of a government shutdown looming, Obama administration officials raced Wednesday to identify essential government services that would have to be provided if the government ran out of money.
Agency officials were revising their plans by the hour, trying to take account of legal requirements, political imperatives and pressure from federal employee unions demanding more information.
The basic rule is that federal agencies cannot operate without spending authority provided by Congress. That authority expires Friday night for most federal agencies. But federal employees can continue work needed to safeguard human life, to protect federal property or to shut down government functions in an orderly way.
A senior administration official said a shutdown could idle 800,000 of the 1.9 million civilian federal workers.
Here are highlights of contingency plans, compiled from federal agencies still sorting out what services would continue:
SOCIAL SECURITY The government would continue to make Social Security payments to the 53 million beneficiaries. “We will continue to process applications for benefits, but it might take longer if a shutdown does occur,” said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for Social Security. “Our local offices will open for limited services. We are working on the specifics.”
A huge backlog of applications for Social Security disability benefits would grow even larger, agency officials said.
HEALTH CARE Medicare, the program for people who are 65 and older or disabled, would continue to pay doctors and hospitals for several weeks, using money from its trust funds.
The National Institutes of Health would not admit new patients to its research hospital or begin new clinical trials of drugs, devices or other treatments. However, research studies already begun would continue.
TAXES. The Internal Revenue Service would not audit tax returns and would not issue refunds to taxpayers who file returns on paper. But the agency would process returns filed electronically, a majority of all filings, and would issue refunds for those returns. Douglas H. Shulman, the I.R.S. commissioner, said federal taxes would still be due on April 18. (The deadline had already been extended three days because of a local holiday here.) The I.R.S. plans to keep enough people on hand to cash incoming checks because the government needs the money.
HOUSING If a shutdown occurs, the Federal Housing Administration, the world’s largest insurer of mortgages, could not make new loan guarantees for homebuyers.
PASSPORTS As a national security agency, the State Department would continue operations, but some activities, like issuing passports for travelers and visas for foreigners coming to the United States, could stop or face significant delays. Emergency consular services would continue.
POSTAL SERVICE Post offices would maintain their regular hours and mail delivery would continue.
FOOD STAMPS Since the government makes the money available to states by the beginning of each month, advocates for food stamp recipients predicted no immediate impact on benefits. “They should be O.K. for the month of April,” said Stacy Dean, a food stamp expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
MILITARY Active-duty personnel would continue to work and earn pay during a shutdown, but would generally not receive paychecks until Congress appropriated money at some later date. While troops in combat zones and assisting Japanese earthquake relief would continue operations, they might not be paid until a new budget was approved.
Many civilian employees of the Defense Department could be furloughed, but some would continue working, if their duties were deemed essential to national security or to the protection of life and property.
Civilian employees of the armed forces perform myriad duties, including payroll, security and air traffic control. Brian M. Leonard, president of a union local representing civilian employees of the Marine Corps, said, “The Defense Department is not telling us which employees will be furloughed, how they will be notified or whether they will be paid.”
PARKS AND MUSEUMS National parks would be closed and the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are planning to close.
WELFARE (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Benefits have been authorized through the end of September, so experts predicted that cash assistance payments would not be affected. States share in the costs and could substitute their own money to make up for delays in the arrival of federal dollars.
“Our expectation is that it’s not going to have a big impact,” said LaDonna A. Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
BANKS If your bank fails, you’re in good hands. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will remain fully operational during a government closure, a spokeswoman said. Bank examiners will continue to examine, federal deposit insurance will remain in place and the agency’s consumer response center, which handles inquiries and complaints about banking institutions, will continue to field calls.
FINANCIAL REGULATION A shutdown of much of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is unlikely to affect the operation of the financial markets. Stock exchanges and other markets themselves enforce rules that temporarily halt trading in the case of wild price swings.
LAW ENFORCEMENT The Justice Department would continue work to protect national security, enforce criminal laws and combat drug trafficking and gun violence. At department headquarters and at the offices of United States attorneys around the country, prosecutors would continue criminal litigation without interruption. Federal prisons would continue to operate.
But the Justice Department would curtail or stop work on most civil litigation.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA About 14,000 of the city’s 35,000 workers would be furloughed, city officials said. Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians would work as usual. The city would still respond to 911 calls and provide services to people needing welfare assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. But the city would suspend street sweeping and routine road repairs. Trash would not be collected in the first week of a shutdown. The city’s public libraries and offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles would be closed.
FEDERAL WORKERS Obama administration officials said they hoped to notify federal employees by Friday whether they would be furloughed as nonessential workers.
In any event, all federal employees — essential and nonessential alike —are expected to go to work on Monday to help close up shop in an orderly way, the officials said.