Who does a government shutdown affect most? Here’s what happens to the agencies Americans rely on.

Washington — With an Oct. 1 deadline to fund the government looming and no deal in Congress in sight, the prospect of a government shutdown has many Americans wondering what the impact of a lapse in government funding might mean for the services they depend on.

A shutdown occurs when Congress fails to approve new spending for federal agencies, which are generally barred from spending money without congressional authorization. There are some exceptions, like activities needed to protect life and property. Each agency makes its own determination about which employees are needed to stay on the job, meaning the impact on federal operations can vary widely.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is scrambling to find a way forward with his fractious Republican caucus, with a vocal hard-right faction opposed to a short-term deal that would extend government funding, even with spending cuts.

Since no annual spending bills have passed, a government shutdown would touch nearly every corner of the vast federal government, excluding programs that have permanent funding. Many federal employees would be required to keep working without pay. Hundreds of thousands more would be furloughed and sent home, with their paychecks delayed until there is a resolution.

The impact of the shutdown would depend on how long it lasts. Here are some of the federal government’s functions that will and won’t be impacted by a lapse in funding:

The military and federal law enforcement

An aerial view of the Pentagon on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
An aerial view of the Pentagon on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.PHOTO BY BILL CLARK/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC VIA GETTY IMAGES

Members of the military and federal law enforcement would continue going to work, but may not be paid until Congress approved government funding. Most civilian personnel working for the Defense Department, such as military technicians, would be furloughed, and military personnel may step in to carry out their work, according to a contingency plan for the continuation of essential operations issued by the Pentagon in August.

There are roughy 804,000 civilian employees at the Pentagon, and pay for more than 166,000 is financed outside of annual appropriations, according to the plan. The Defense Department said nearly 200,000 are “necessary to protect life and property,” and would be kept on in the event of a shutdown. Roughly 2 million military personnel would continue to perform duties during a lapse in funding.

Nonessential government programs could also be paused — during the 2018 shutdown, the Army and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve canceled training, and furloughs went into effect.

Training exercises “required to required to achieve and maintain operational readiness and to prepare for and carry out” operations necessary for national security would be exempted from a shutdown, according to the contingency plan.

Pentagon spokesperson Chris Sherwood told Politico in an emailed statement that furloughs and the Defense Department’s pause of nonessential activities that are expected in the event of a shutdown could disrupt the “delivery of defense articles, services and/or military education and training” for Ukraine.

The IRS and taxes

File photo of the Internal Revenue Service building.
File photo of the Internal Revenue Service building.SAUL LOEB/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Because of money Democrats approved through their landmark healthcare, tax and climate legislation last year, normal operations at the IRS would continue, and the agency’s 83,000 workers would be saved from furlough. Taxpayers are still required to pay taxes during a shutdown.

The tax agency’s circumstances under a possible government shutdown this year would differ greatly from years past. In 2018, at least 26,000 furloughed IRS workers were called back to work without pay to get ready for the tax season, though 14,000 of those recalled employees didn’t return, with thousands seeking permission under their union contract to be absent because of financial hardship.

Military and veterans’ health care

According to the White House, acute and emergency outpatient care in Defense Department medical and dental facilities will continue. All inpatient care will also continue at Defense Department medical facilities.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said all Veterans Health Administration facilities are expected to remain open in the event of a shutdown. Employees who perform medical and prosthetic research are expected to be furloughed.

VA doctors will remain on the job and the Veteran Choice Program will remain open, which means that prescriptions will still be filled and medical providers will still be open for appointments.

Other VA benefits

Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 10, 2013.
Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Veterans Affairs benefits continue as normal under a shutdown. Military retirees and bereaved families on the Survivor Benefit Plan can expect to continue to receive their pension checks. Disability checks will continue.

“The [VA] is committed to providing quality, consistent care and services to Veterans and their families,” the agency’s contingency plan says. “VA’s mission provides no exception to this standard even when operations are limited by the absence of appropriations.”

But there can still be ramifications for veterans, especially if a shutdown drags on for an extended period of time. During the October 2013 shutdown, VA officials warned that disability payments might be stalled if the closure lasted beyond several weeks.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

Social Security checks will continue to be sent out in the event of a shutdown, so seniors and others on Social Security don’t need to worry about missing payments. But other Social Security Agency services like benefit verification could be severely affected, and new applicants could temporarily be turned away. Social Security is funded by permanent appropriations, meaning it doesn’t need funding renewed every year.

Medicare and Medicaid are also permanent programs, so benefits would continue uninterrupted.

The Postal Service

Postal Service operations aren’t affected during a shutdown. That means the mail will still be delivered, and Post Offices will still be open. The U.S. Postal Service is an independent agency, and in previous shutdowns, operations have continued.

Food assistance

While funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is mandatory, the actual issuance of benefits can be affected by a shutdown, since Department of Agriculture employees aren’t receiving a paycheck. Typically in a shutdown, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the USDA is authorized to send out SNAP benefits for 30 days. After that, benefits can become dicey.

National parks

During the government shutdown in 2013, visitors to national parks, including to monuments in Washington, D.C., were met with closure signs. The National Parks Service estimated that the shutdown resulted in more than $500 million in lost-visitor spending.

A Park Police officer walks passes a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to a partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.
File photo: A Park Police officer walks passes a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to a partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2013. JOSHUA ROBERTS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Many parks stayed open during a shutdown in 2018 and 2019, but with fewer visitor services, such as trash collection and access to restrooms. Some states like Utah paid the federal government to keep certain properties open.

In anticipation of a lapse in government funding at the end of this month, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged Interior Secretary Debra Haaland to use certain funds from the collection of fees to keep national parks and other public lands accessible.

“In previous years, it has been demonstrated that these funds can be successfully utilized to keep public lands open during a lapse in appropriations,” Barrasso wrote.

Air travel

People wait in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport three days before Thanksgiving in Orlando, Florida, Nov. 21, 2022.
People wait in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport three days before Thanksgiving on Nov. 21, 2022.PAUL HENNESSY/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Travelers may feel the pain at the nation’s airports as a result of a shutdown, as air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents would have to work without pay, according to the White House.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said a shutdown could mean “significant” delays for travelers, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Congress on Wednesday that a lapse in funding would come at “exactly the wrong moment” and halt training for roughly 2,600 air traffic controllers. There is currently a shortage of roughly 3,000 air traffic controllers in the U.S., and Buttigieg warned a shutdown would come “at the very moment when we finally have those air traffic control workforce numbers headed in the right direction.”

The Department of Transportation said in a shutdown plan issued in September 2022 that air traffic control services will continue as expected during a lapse in appropriations. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s plan, an estimated 55,975 TSA employees are expected to be retained if funding runs out.

During the shutdown that began in late 2018, unscheduled absences at two Federal Aviation Administration facilities led to travel disruptions at New York’s LaGuardia airport and other major airports in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New Jersey.

State Department’s passport office

The State Department’s Passport Agency remains open during a shutdown, but like many other offices, don’t expect it to work at the same speed. Passport renewals have already been lagging for travelers, and a shutdown wouldn’t help.

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