The federal government does an almost unfathomable number of things, so a shutdown would likely affect everyday Americans more than they realize.
While the 4 million Americans who work for the federal government — the nation’s largest employer — would be most affected, a range of economists, including the White House Council of Economic Advisers, estimate their lost wages and halted operations would reduce overall economic growth forecasts by 0.1% or 0.2% each week.
Even though federal employees wouldn't be working, the government would not save money. Employees would eventually get paid, thanks to legislation signed into law by then-President Donald Trump, meaning taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars in wages for millions of man-hours not worked, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
In the event of a shutdown, the government also ends up having to pay late fees and interest on bills it had to delay as it loses revenue that would otherwise be generated by furloughed IRS workers.
Staff, meanwhile, have been forced to put their real jobs on hold to prepare for the looming shutdown. For instance, it took weeks to safely shut down and reactivate nuclear weapons laboratories in previous shutdowns.
Many parts of the federal government — including the National Park Service — have not yet detailed their plans for a shutdown, and that's not too surprising as some consequences are tricky to predict. Past shutdowns show that plans tend to be in constant flux as the closure drags, with Congress sometimes appropriating partial funds and agencies scrambling to respond to emerging problems.
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Based on how the situation unfolded during the 16-day shutdown in 2013 and the 34-day partial shutdown in late 2018/early 2019, here’s a look at what could happen if the government shuts down again.
The National Park Service plans to close its parks and furlough park rangers if the government shuts down on Sunday. In that event, a senior official with the Department of Interior said the park service intends to restrict access to parks as much as possible, including shuttering visitor centers, locking gates and bolting bathrooms.
Areas where it’s difficult to restrict access — like the National Mall in Washington, trailheads or a campground without a gate — will remain accessible to the public, but those areas may not have services such as trash collection and emergency response.
During the October 2013 shutdown, national parks were closed — though some states paid to reopen their parks — which cost the parks and gateway communities an estimated $414 million from almost 8 million lost visitations, according to the Congressional Research Service.
During the 2018-2019 shutdown, the parks themselves remained accessible, but without most services. That led to overflowing trash cans and toilets, limited access to first aid, and damage to unattended natural areas from illegal activity that experts said could take years to recover, such as vandalized Joshua trees and artifacts pilfered from Civil War battlefields.
Smithsonian and other federal museums
According to the Smithsonian's plan, the institution would use "available prior-year appropriations" so that it's museums can remain open to the public "as long as funding permits," that includes the National Zoo, which could see an interruption in planned commemorations of the departure of the zoo’s remaining pandas.
Smithsonian museums are free, but they lost an estimated $4 million in revenue from food and other sales during the 2013 shutdown.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington would remain open, since it can tap a different pot of money, the museum said. Some presidential libraries would remain open as long as they have sufficient funds, but others would close and research services would be reduced.
The American Battle Monuments Commission would be forced to close the two dozen overseas military cemeteries it manages, mostly in Europe and Southeast Asia, where more than 200,000 Americans killed in World War I and World War II are buried.
The commission said the closures could cause "families of the war dead, veterans’ groups, and other visitors to miss what may be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to visit these overseas commemorative sites" during the shutdown.
Arlington National Cemetery would continue normal operations, at least for a while, thanks to funds that have already been appropriated.
Four out of the five Nobel laureates employed by the government were furloughed during the 2013 shutdown. Countless research projects faced new challenges and difficulties accessing grant money, with furloughs hitting 98% of staff at the National Science Foundation, three-quarters of employees of the National Institutes of Health, and two-thirds of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff (though a smaller portion would be cut this time).
Massive capital-intensive science facilities, like the Very Large Array of radio telescope dishes in New Mexico, featured in films like "Contact" and "Independence Day," would sit idle, squandering millions of dollars in precious research time.
The federal government would also halt efforts to combat and research invasive species, which increasingly threaten ecosystems and agriculture. Previous shutdowns also prevented hundreds of patients from enrolling in NIH clinical trials.
While federal agents would stay on the job, past shutdowns have compromised investigations and led to complications, according to the FBI Agents Association.
During the last shutdown, the FBI could not fund operations with local police departments and was unable to pay for confidential informants, which risked losing some permanently. The E-Verify system, which employers use to check job applicants' immigration status, also went offline.
“The fear is, our enemies know they can run freely,” an FBI counterterrorism agent said in 2019.
Election season is upon us, but “virtually all core agency functions” of the Federal Election Commission would cease in a shutdown, according to the agency’s contingency plans, and its website would stop being updated.
Air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents would stay on the job, but they wouldn’t be paid.
In past shutdowns, many simply stopped showing up to work or found other jobs, which led to a complete ground stop at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and major delays at other large airports.
A shutdown would mean immediately having to “stop training new air traffic controllers and furlough the other 1,000 controllers who are already in the training pipeline,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday. A shutdown would mean “increasing the chance that there’s going to be some issue that leads to disruptions like cancellations and delays for passengers.”
The State Department says it would continue to process passports, but that passport agencies located in government buildings affected by a shutdown may be closed — mail applications would still be accepted, however — and that there could be some delays in processing time. Consular services overseas would continue normally, according to the department’s plans.
Student loans, K-12 schools and Head Start
Student loan payments were suspended during much of the pandemic, but will be restarting just as the government prepares for a potential shutdown — and they’re still due no matter what.
With more than 90% of Education Department employees expected to be furloughed, a department planning memo says there could be disruptions in issuing new loans and a lengthy shutdown would "severely curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities."
The White House has also said that “10,000 children across the country would immediately lose access to Head Start,” a program that promotes school readiness for kids in low-income families.
And the 2013 shutdown kept home 600 young people who had committed a year of their lives to community service through AmeriCorps, the government program that puts its members to work on a range of domestic issues, from literacy to the environment.
Food and poverty relief projects
The Agriculture Department says, in the event of a shutdown, it has enough money to keep running the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, through October. But the White House says there is only a few days worth of money available to run the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, which is used by nearly seven million American women and children.
Food banks and the Meals on Wheels program would also likely face disruptions, forcing local charities or states to make up the shortfall. And stores would not be able to renew their Electronic Benefits Transfer licenses, according to the Congressional Research Service, meaning people wouldn't be able to use their EBT cards at stores where licenses happen to expire during the shutdown.
Delays in tax and loan processing
Income tax returns and other IRS matters would likely face delays.
And agencies that issue loans, like the Small Business Administration and Federal Housing Administration, would be unable to process new loans. Private banks and other lenders would also be likely to lose access to government income and Social Security number verification services, which could delay the processing of mortgages and business loans.
A shutdown would result in a "data blackout" of critical economic statistics that influence markets and businesses around the globe. That includes census data, unemployment figures, wage information, inflation forecasts and pricing reports on a huge range of commodities from petroleum to produce. (The commercial importance of such data was dramatized in the film "Trading Places," which revolves around USDA orange crop forecasts.)
Military and veterans services
While members of the military are considered essential, they would be forced to work without pay and many civilian workers would be furloughed, which the White House says could be “disruptive to our national security.”
Some veterans benefits, like employment workshops to help former service members transition to civilian life, could be delayed.
Consumer product, food, water quality and workplace safety inspections
During the 2013 shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration delayed nearly 500 inspections and the Consumer Product Safety Commission furloughed all of its port inspectors, preventing the agency from screening imported children’s products. The Environmental Protection Agency halted inspections of about 1,200 sites it monitors for issues like hazardous waste and water quality.
Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suspended almost 1,400 federal inspections, and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division — which enforces minimum wage laws, overtime rules and child labor bans — ceased nearly all its work.
Social Security and Medicare
Checks would still go out and Medicare would continue to cover doctors' bills for older adults, since social safety net programs are funded differently.
But previous shutdowns have suspended the issuance of Social Security and Medicare cards.
During the 2013 shutdown, the Treasury Department furloughed nearly the entire Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements U.S. sanctions on countries like Russia and Iran. That could be especially thorny this time around as the U.S. and its allies work to enforce broad sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
No new beer
An agency in the Treasury Department has to approve all new alcohol labels and approve exports, so past government shutdowns have delayed new craft beers from hitting the market and left millions of liters of American-made wine, beer and distilled spirits stranded at ports.
Marriages in D.C.
Washington, D.C., a federal district with limited self-governing powers, once lost trash collection and other basic services during a government shutdown.
That’s no longer the case, but at least one quirk remains: The District of Columbia Courts, a federal agency, says it would cease issuing marriage licenses in the event of a shutdown.