Here’s the Truth: The Government Doesn’t Shut Down

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In 1995-96, however, shutdowns morphed into political warfare, to the dismay of Republicans who thought they could use them to drag Clinton to the negotiating table on a balanced budget plan.

Republicans took a big political hit, but most Americans suffered relatively minor inconveniences like closed parks and delays in processing passport applications. Some 2,400 workers cleaning up toxic waste sites were sent home, and there were short delays in processing veterans’ claims.

Under a precedent-setting memorandum by Reagan budget chief David Stockman, federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property.”

In 1995, that meant 571,000 Defense Department civilian employees, some 69 percent, remained at post, while 258,000 other Pentagon workers were furloughed. Eighty-five percent of Veterans Administration employees went to work as did 70 percent of Transportation Department workers. The Transportation Security Administration didn’t exist back then, but agency officials have given assurances that TSA officers will screen airline passengers, though administrative workers will stay home.

Then there’s Social Security. Current beneficiaries need not worry; their payments wouldn’t be affected. And given the most recent precedent from the Clinton administration, those eligible to apply for benefits would be able to do so. During the first shutdown in 1995, the Social Security Administration initially furloughed 93 percent of its workers and stopped enrolling new beneficiaries. But it reversed course in the second shutdown and kept 50,000 additional workers on the job.

A funding lapse, or shutdown, involves the authority to spend new money. A default involves the ability to pay obligations already incurred.

A default would occur if the government is no longer able to borrow and has run out of cash to pay all the bills coming due. Then, the government has to rely on cash coming in to pay whatever bills it can.

Since the government has never defaulted, it’s impossible to know for sure how it would behave. But it’s commonly assumed that Treasury would make sure that it would meet interest payment so as to not alarm financial markets and prompt U.S. creditors to stop “rolling over” debt by reinvesting bonds when they mature.

“If the federal government actually were to default on its debt obligations, the full faith and credit of the U.S. government is in question and it can have devastating effects on Treasury’s ability to borrow and on the stability of financial markets in general,” said Keith Hennessey, former Director of the National Economic Council in the George W. Bush White House.

Earlier this year the GOP-controlled House passed legislation requiring Treasury to “prioritize” its obligations to pay interest payments and Social Security benefits first if there’s not enough cash to pay all the bills.

But while it’s relatively easy to prioritize interest payments, Treasury’s computer systems aren’t programmed in such a way that it’d be easy to pick and choose what payments to make.

In an internal review after the 2011 debt crisis, Treasury officials told an agency inspector general that best option in a cash crunch would be to delay payments. In other words, Treasury would figure out how much a particular day’s bills cost and then pay those bills when enough cash came in. That would mean the government would quickly fall behind on its payments.

Let’s say the government runs out of cash on Oct. 18, the earliest date at which default might occur, according to estimates by the Bipartisan Policy center, a Washington think tank. Were the impasse to continue into November, a host of major payments due on Nov. 1 — including $25 billion in Social Security benefits — would be delayed almost two weeks.

Oh, and the people who receive their Social Security at the beginning of the month are those who’ve been in the system since before May of 1997, which means most of them are more than 80 years old.

Ironically, in a default scenario, more federal employees could report to work than if there’s a funding lapse. They just couldn’t get paid on time.

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