NPR

What Happens If The Government Shuts Down

Congress and President Obama have until midnight Friday to agree on a budget compromise or parts of the federal government will shut down. As many as 800,000 civilian workers would be furloughed. NPR's Brian Naylor talks about what and who would be affected by a potential shutdown.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

So what happens if the talks do fail? If you have questions about what parts of the federal government would be affected by a shutdown and what might actually happen, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org.

NPR's Brian Naylor is here with us also in Studio 3A.

And, Brian, always nice to have you on as well.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And it's - is it fair to say that the parts of the federal government that deal with public safety would continue to operate no matter what?

NAYLOR: That's right. The government officials have been saying that there are basically two broad categories, that the law enforcement, public safety, national security folks, that would be the military, obviously, that would be the Homeland Security employees, that would be the FBI, DEA, those sorts of folks, will continue to stay on the job.

And the others that will be working throughout a shutdown are those that are agencies that are not necessarily directly funded or primarily funded by federal dollars: the post office (unintelligible)...

CONAN: The post office gets their money from stamps.

NAYLOR: That's right. All of that stamp money. And also, you know, Medicare is another example where the fees are paid for as part of our -a part of a separate tax fund, and it's not necessarily an - it's not an annual government appropriation.

CONAN: And Social Security checks, as I understand, are largely automated, so you don't need people necessarily.

NAYLOR: Right. That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Well, who would then be affected?

NAYLOR: Well, there are about 800,000 federal employees. That's the number that they're using, roughly the same number as the last major shutdown in 1995. And they are the folks that do, you know, everything else, a lot of people who work in the bureaucracy. Most of the employees of the Department of Education, for instance, will be declared - they don't like to use the terms essential or nonessential, they're - so they're using the terms exempt or nonexempt from the ruling. So these -Department of Education employees will be nonexempt.

Lots of folks that at the Department of Commerce, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, you know, all of the big agencies, the National Park Service, will see - the parks will be closed on Saturday morning, the Smithsonian Institutes here in Washington, the museums.

CONAN: One in New York as well. And, indeed, so those museums would close and you mentioned, obviously, the military would keep operating. Would those people who continue to operate get paid?

NAYLOR: Well, that's another tricky question. It's widely assumed and I would say with almost 100 percent certainty that the military folks will get paid, our soldiers. No one is going to leave our soldiers and sailors unpaid, but they may not get their checks right away. They may have to work for a week or so before they get - I'm sorry. Right now, they're in the middle of the pay cycle...

CONAN: Period.

NAYLOR: ...the pay period. So they will get paid next week as per normal. But after that, maybe not. And they'll certainly get reimbursed. But the question is when. And the other federal employees, it's going to be entirely up to Congress whether those who are furloughed and who will not be working, whether they will be paid or not. In the last shutdown, they were. This time, no one really knows.

CONAN: What about Congress itself?

NAYLOR: Well, that's a good question. Congress is in the position of declaring itself essential or exempt. And so members of Congress and the president will be paid throughout this, and each member of Congress has the - can determine whether his or her own staffs are going to be declared essential or not, and some already have said that they're going to pay their entire staffs.

CONAN: So - but that would be out of their pocket, not out of the government's pocket.

NAYLOR: No, no. That will be out of the government's pocket.

CONAN: Really?

NAYLOR: Yeah.

CONAN: Okay.

NAYLOR: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: So those staffs who are actually Sherpas, if you will, of these negotiations, the people with the spreadsheets and all the books and that sort of thing...

NAYLOR: Right.

CONAN: ...they will be able to continue to negotiate.

NAYLOR: Right. Right. But, you know, the White House said today that there will be lots of White House employees who will not be paid, who will not be - or I shouldn't say will not be paid - who will not be kept on, declared essential for the duration.

CONAN: And so, are people - I heard you report on this before. So many people have been declared nonexempt between 1995 and now that there's going to be less of an impact if one happens this time than there was all those years ago.

NAYLOR: Well, I think less of a visible impact. You know, you're still going to have the FAA controlling the skies. The air traffic controllers are going to be there. The TSA screeners are going to be screening passengers. In fact, all - the Department of Homeland Security didn't exist in 1995, and all of those - most of those agencies will be declared - or their employees will be declared exempt. So the border patrol, the customs folks, the Coast Guard, those will all remain on the job.

And so much more of the government is automated now, like you mentioned before. Social Security checks, for the most part, are on kind of on autopilot. So they'll continue to go out, as well tax returns if you filed your tax return electronically, as about 70 percent of people do and you're scheduled to get a refund, that refund will come as per usual. However, if you are one of those that still likes to sit down with the paper and the number - or rather the blue pen and fill out your forms...

CONAN: I use an abacus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAYLOR: That's right. Well, you're in a lot of trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That goes without saying.

NAYLOR: But those refunds - if you're due a refund, it will be delayed if you filed on paper. And I should also add that the IRS says regardless of a shutdown or not, those returns are due on April 18th. They've already had a little bit of an extension this year because the 15th is a Washington, D.C. holiday. But everybody's returns are due on April 18th, shutdown or no.

CONAN: One of the things that happened during the last shutdown was a ruling, in fact, that even those nonessential employees who wanted to work, even for free - we remember the zookeepers at the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C. wanted to go in and feed the animals. They work for the Smithsonian and it's a same deal with them. They would not be allowed to work for free.

NAYLOR: That's right. It violates federal law. And this year, the new twist is because so many federal employees have, you know, PDAs, BlackBerrys or iPhones or whatever, they're going to be told - many of them are going to be told to surrender their BlackBerrys next week...

CONAN: Really?

NAYLOR: ...so that they're not even tempted to send an email to one of their colleagues because that would violate the no work, no volunteer work. I should add, though, I think the zookeepers will be determined essential, so the gorillas and the pandas and everyone else at the National Zoo will be taken care of.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR Washington correspondent Brian Naylor about what might happen in the event of a government shutdown. It's scheduled to happen at midnight on Friday unless talks are successful. We're told now that the congressional leaders and the president and I think Vice President Biden has also been part of these discussions. They will resume negotiations tonight at 7.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Brandon(ph), Brandon with us from Tehachapi in California.

BRANDON (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, Mr. Conan. Thank you for having me on the air.

CONAN: Sure.

BRANDON: What I want to know is - I want to know why our senators and our House of Representatives are not taking the lead in any type of an austerity program and take an - a pay cut in their salaries and in the perks? I think it's time our leaders step up to the plate, and with, you know, with the public and take cuts as well themselves to help our fiscal crisis.

CONAN: Hold on a second. I'm just going to be bring Mara Liasson back to the conversation.

LIASSON: Yeah. I can just reassure the caller that they will be not - if there is a government shutdown, they won't be taking their pay either. There's already been legislation to that, and I think it's...

BRANDON: Well, I just think...

LIASSON: ...almost unimaginable that anyone standing for re-election...

BRANDON: But it's my understanding, though, Barack Obama is not going to sign that legislation, though, either and it hasn't been yet passed.

LIASSON: Yes, but each representative, I think, is perfectly capable of turning in his paycheck.

NAYLOR: Yeah.

LIASSON: Not accepting the pay for that period of time.

BRANDON: Well, yes, I understand that as well. But no, I think they need to be taking pay cuts, annual pay cuts. I mean, I think they need to be taking annual pay cuts, you know, in their salaries for the rest of this year, for years to come. They need to be taking cuts in their perks. I mean, they're asking the American people to take cuts. Why don't they take cuts and take the lead in this austerity program?

LIASSON: Well, I think that that's a widely held sentiment.

NAYLOR: And some lawmakers have, as Mara noted, already said that they won't be accepting their pay for any shutdown.

BRANDON: Well, I think that's perfectly fine. And I don't - and in fact, I don't think they should be even taking pay for the last, you know, three weeks of every - for every time or two weeks here that they've been extending. And, I mean, that's...

CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for the call.

BRANDON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Diane(ph), Diane with us from Moultrie in Georgia.

DIANE (Caller): Yes. This is really personal for me. I just left my daughter in North Carolina. Her husband was deployed a week ago, and here she is home with two young children, and then hears that she may not get a paycheck to take care of things. It's such ridiculous that these young women and men are having to even consider that. I don't really have a question. It's just all the talk and all the experts - I just want somebody out there to realize how - what a burden it is for a military person to sit there and think about this kind of thing on top of all the other dangers they're facing.

CONAN: Diane, as we heard earlier, they're likely to get that check. It may be sometime before it gets there, until after the shutdown is over. But does she work...

DIANE: Yeah. I understand that they're probably going to get their pay. But the fact that this should even be on her mind, you know...

CONAN: Well, I also wonder, does...

DIANE: ...is just ridiculous to me. And I'm just grandma with a 4-year-old, looking at me, hugging his daddy pillow, you know, and thinking, oh my gosh, one more thing they have to deal with right now.

CONAN: I understand, Diane. Thank you very much for the call.

DIANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Mara?

LIASSON: You know, just that caller, I think, should strike fear into the heart of every single member of Congress and every White House staffer. I mean, the result of this - there have been tremendous amounts of polls done about who would be blamed for the shutdown and who would be hurt politically. Everyone is going to be hurt politically. It would be such an utter abdication of leadership across the board. And I don't see how any American citizen could see it any other way. I mean, there are some Tea Party people who say we should shut down the government. That would be a good thing.

CONAN: Members of Congress.

LIASSON: But I think that they are in the minority. The vast majority of people, when they finally realize what's happening - and most people aren't focusing on this yet and they won't until it actually happens -will see this as completely ridiculous. This is a government that will not have been able to come together on about 1 percent of the federal budget, which is about what divides them right now, for seven months of one fiscal year.

And for financial markets and our creditors who are trying to evaluate the government's ability to deal with the long-term, serious, consequential challenges like entitlements and the debt and the deficit - if the government can't get it together, both parties and both houses of Congress and the White House, to solve this tiny, little seven-month problem, how are they going to solve that bigger one? And I think it will be a tremendous blow.

CONAN: Well, that'll come up again, when we talk about the debt limit, another arcane issue that will be, well, of great interest to the Congress and to the White House when it comes up, what, later this month, ,next month, well, in the next couple of weeks anyway.

Mara Liasson, again, thank you very much for your time. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and Brian Naylor. We hope you avoid being very busy over the weekend, covering the government shutdown. We appreciate your time today. NPR Washington correspondent Brian Naylor.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll see you again on Monday. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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