Government Shutdown: Are You Affected?

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Yes, you are. But how much depends on where you work and what you're doing in the next few weeks.

The federal government shut down today for the first time since 1996 because Congress couldn’t manage its most basic task of funding the government.

Why? Because some House Republicans want to abort Obamacare, something the President and the Senate refuse to consider.

Even though House Republicans have voted 42 times to destroy Obamacare and failed to do so, they made this last-ditch effort to stop it before the state online health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act opened for business today. (For those who want to buy insurance there, the state marketplaces opened as scheduled.)

The Republican-controlled House passed a spending bill that would limit or remove some measures of Obamacare and delay the law’s implementation by a year in exchange for funding normal government activities, The New York Times says. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., told MSNBC the goal was to delay the reform law long enough for Republicans to win control of the Senate and repeal it. The current Senate, however, refused to accept those conditions.

If there’s any light at the end of this tunnel, it’s probably an incoming train — one that’s colliding with many of the services provided by the federal government. Here’s what the wreckage means for various citizens:

  • Congress. If you’re a member of Congress, a shutdown will have no financial impact on you. (At least, not until election time.) While hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be furloughed without pay, Congress’ jobs are considered essential and the money for them keeps flowing, The Huffington Post says. You may recall that congressional pay was also immune to Congress’ last major budget failure — the sequestration cuts.
  • Federal workers. More than 800,000 of them may go without pay for a while, The Washington Post says. The newspaper has a breakdown of what each agency has planned. They may or may not be paid retroactively, depending on whether Congress authorizes it, USA Today says.
  • Students. The U.S. Department of Education will still distribute an already-agreed-upon $22 billion to public schools, the Post says. Pell grants and federal student loans for college students will still be processed and handed out, although by fewer workers, which may mean delays. The federal school lunch program will continue, USA Today says.
  • Military. Active-duty service members will stay on the job, and will be paid, thanks to a last-minute measure approved by Congress and signed by the president.
  • Veterans. Services through the Department of Veteran Affairs may be affected. While VA hospitals should remain open, benefits may be delayed if the shutdown lasts very long. By late October, the department “will run out of money for compensation and pension checks to more than 3.6 million veterans who rely on the money to support themselves,” USA Today says.
  • Travelers. You won’t be skipping the security lines at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security will keep almost all of the TSA and customs officials on duty, the Post says. Air traffic controllers will also remain on the job, so airports shouldn’t be adversely affected. National parks and all Smithsonian institutions will be closed. It may be difficult to get a passport because the State Department has limited funds to continue operating.
  • People who eat. “The Food Safety and Inspection Service would continue all safety-related activities,” USA Today says. But the Food and Drug Administration will not be able to maintain routine inspections or monitor imports, the Post says. It would continue to staff enough people to handle high-risk recalls, however. Food stamps will still be available.
  • People waiting for mail. You’ll be fine. The Postal Service will continue operating normally.
  • Those who owe taxes. The IRS will have to halt audits for now, the Post says. (But they’ll get you, sooner or later.) Tax payments will still be processed, USA Today says.
  • Retirees. The Treasury Department will continue disbursing Social Security payments, the Post says. You’ll also still be able to apply, USA Today says. Also, Medicare benefits will continue.

How long could this go on? Who knows. The last time it happened, the federal government was shut down for 21 days. Previous shutdowns have been as short as a day, and most lasted less than three days.

And guess what? There’s an even bigger fight, over the federal debt limit, coming in a few weeks — potentially with more dire consequences. While shutdowns have happened before, the country has never defaulted on its debt. That’s what would happen unless Congress acts. Without action, estimates suggest we’ll breach the debt limit between Oct. 18 and Nov. 5, the Post says.

Just fighting over this stuff has bad effects, too, even if default is avoided. A debt limit fight in 2011 caused the U.S. credit rating to be downgraded. That and worse could happen this time.

“Treasury bonds are viewed as the bedrock of financial markets, thanks largely to the assumption that the United States will always pay its debts,” the Times says. “Most analysts say that if that were thrown into question, the consequences would be catastrophic, and largely unpredictable.”

Stacy Johnson

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