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Government shutdown would halt many, but not all, services

Times have changed since political battles shut down the federal government in the 1990s. Consequences today could be as severe but are unpredictable.

February 19, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • President Clinton meets with Republicans Newt Gingrich, left, and Bob Dole in an effort to end the last government shutdown.
President Clinton meets with Republicans Newt Gingrich, left, and Bob… (Luc Novovitch, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — Hundreds of thousands of federal workers were laid off and most services ground to a halt in 1995 and 1996 when open political warfare shut down the government.

Since then, technology has changed and the government has been reorganized. But a shutdown that could occur as soon as March 4 would have profound, if unpredictable, effects across the country, much like the last one 15 years ago.

Lawmakers are in the midst of a deepening budget standoff with just two weeks to go before a stopgap funding measure expires. House Republicans said they would not approve another such measure without deep cuts, and they approved $61 billion in reductions Saturday to this year's budget. President Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate strongly oppose the House GOP approach.

The Constitution and U.S. statutes prohibit agencies from operating without an express appropriation from Congress, meaning a lapse in funding would trigger layoffs and fractures in services.

Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) each said last week that a shutdown would delay Social Security checks and disrupt other services considered vital to millions of Americans.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, Social Security checks continued to be mailed, although many government payments were delayed as officials struggled to keep enough employees on the job on an emergency basis, as laws allow, to continue service.

Many other Social Security services halted, including responses to requests for retirement and disability claims, address changes and Social Security numbers needed for work.

During that time, museums and national parks were closed and applications for visas and passports went unprocessed. A downturn in the housing market was blamed on a halt to transactions involving the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, now called the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Government economic reports were delayed, and federal employees went without paychecks for as long as the shutdowns lasted. Claims for veterans benefits also faced delays.

Some government functions determined to be "essential" — such as national security, law enforcement and emergency assistance — continued. But in the sprawling federal bureaucracy, determining what fit that classification, and even who made the determination, was not clear.

What would happen this year also is unclear.

During a major storm in Washington, the Office of Personnel Management solely determines whether the federal workforce should report for duty. But in the case of a shutdown, other agencies and officials within the administration are involved with the decisions over which services continue and which employees perform "emergency" or essential services.

The Office of Management and Budget, operated by the White House, now directs federal agencies to maintain shutdown contingency plans, with the chief concern being which operations should continue. But many experts express concern about such plans, saying they have yet to be tested.

"The government is so different today than it was the last time agencies went through that," said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, which represents 330 companies that do business with the federal government. "You don't really prepare for disasters until it's upon you."

In the 1990s, Americans did not have a Transportation Security Administration at the nation's airports, or a Department of Homeland Security. The concept of electronic transactions for student loan or Social Security payments had barely been considered.

"There's still a lot of ambiguity," Chvotkin said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 2 million civilian government employees, excluding the Postal Service. Not all would be affected by a shutdown; the mid-1990s shutdowns resulted in the furlough of an estimated 800,000 federal employees, according to the Congressional Research Service.

There also was a three-day government shutdown in 1990. A 1991 study by the Government Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office, found that stoppage cost between $245 million and $607 million.

Jacob Lew, the White House budget director, said plans for a shutdown have not been put in place. But Obama warned last week about "destabilizing" consequences of a shutdown.

"This is not an abstraction," he said at his Tuesday news conference. "People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions [are] shut down. And it would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery."

Many conservatives believe the potential effects of a shutdown have been overblown. Possible 2012 presidential contender Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, said last week that a shutdown would force Obama to work more closely with Republicans.

mmemoli@tribune.com

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