5 Things to Expect if the Government Shuts Down

By: John Perritano

A closure sign is posted on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., October 3, 2013 when the federal government shut down for 16 days. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
A closure sign is posted on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., October 3, 2013 when the federal government shut down for 16 days. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

"If we don't get what we want ... I will shut down the government. One way or the other it's [the border wall] going to get built." That's what President Donald Trump said in an Oval Office meeting with House and Senate Democrats Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. With yet another a budget deadline looming (this one is Dec. 21, 2018), Americans are wondering if the U.S. government is going to shut down. Congressional lawmakers are currently negotiating a spending bill to keep the government operating, but anything could happen in Washington.

This time around, the issue centers mainly on President Donald Trump's desire to fund a wall on the southern border with Mexico. Trump is demanding billions more in funds for the border wall than the $1.6 billion the Senate has agreed to. At one point during the Tuesday morning meeting (where press was invited) Trump said: "I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. The people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn't work. I will take the mantle for shutting down. I'm going to shut it down for border security."

If Congress fails to agree on a budget to keep the government operational, it will be the fourth time in more than four years. In 2013, Republicans in Congress forced a shutdown when they tried to defund the Affordable Healthcare Act. The Democrats didn't budge and nearly 800,000 federal employees were out of work without pay for 16 days.

Let's be clear: The entire government will not shut down if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on the border wall; they could, instead, pass a temporary spending measure. Either way our mail will still be picked up and delivered. The military will still be on guard. However, some things would stop functioning in a shutdown. And the longer it lasts, the worse it would get.

During the last shutdown, all nonessential employees were furloughed with no guarantee that they would be compensated for lost time when the shutdown ended, though they eventually were. Fearful that this would happen again, lawmakers have already introduced legislation that will give federal employees back pay if the government closes.

But what about those people who don't work for the government? Here are five things that could affect you if lawmakers don't cut a spending deal.


1. Air Travel

While travel in the U.S. certainly won't grind to a halt, (airports would remain open and air traffic controllers and Transportation Safety Administration security officials would remain on the job) you may notice more delays. Nonessential employees would be sent home, and that could spell longer waits. But if you need a passport, apply now. The State Department's passport department is partially funded by federal money. During the 1996 government shutdown, the State Department couldn't process about 200,000 applications, which affected hundreds of thousands of Americans.


2. Museums, Parks and Monuments

If you plan on visiting a national park or monument, you might want to rethink your trip. During past shutdowns, the National Park Service closed its historic sites and parks, including the Statue of Liberty in New York City, Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania and Grand Canyon National Park. In 2013, a man named Chris Cox mowed the lawn outside the Lincoln Memorial when Park Service employees could no longer cut the grass. He also emptied overflowing trash bins. The Smithsonian museums would close, as well, including the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of African American History and the National Zoo.


3. Social Services Benefits

If you get Social Security payments, don't fret. Social Security is its own mandatory spending program that wouldn't be affected. However, anyone who needs to sign up for benefits will have to wait until the shutdown ends. Still, veterans' benefits and farm subsidies may face delays.


4. Unemployment Benefits

If you currently depend on unemployment benefits, you shouldn't feel the sting of a shutdown in the short term. Unemployment benefits are paid and administered by states even though the money comes from the feds. People can still collect and sign up during a government shutdown and everything will be cool, if the funds are still available. A long shutdown, however, would put funding in jeopardy. In 2013, the federal treasury had only three weeks' worth of unemployment benefits in its account.


5. School Lunch, Food Stamps and Housing

If your child is enrolled in a free lunch program at school, they'll still be able to eat because, at least during the last shutdown, most school districts had enough money to fund the program for about a month. If the shutdown lasts longer than that, then the program could be affected.

Some programs administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be impacted, but just how remains to be seen. Most are administered locally through block grants that have already been allocated. These grants are made to public and private groups. In addition, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as food stamps, should be OK for a time because it is administered by the states. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have to determine what will happen if a shutdown lasts for a prolonged period.