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Government Shutdown

12 things you need to know to get through it

En español | The federal government ran out of funding at midnight Friday and shut down.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on a budget that would keep the government going through September. At issue were the overall size of budget cuts and some policy issues.

Both sides offered one-week spending extensions, but with different provisions attached. The White House repeatedly expressed disapproval for any measure that didn't provide funding for the rest of the fiscal year.

The impasse continues.

Here's what the shutdown means to you, based on government watchers and on what happened in previous government closures (PDF).

Q: How long will the shutdown last?
A: The 15 previous shutdowns that occurred since fiscal year 1977 ranged from three days to 21 days.

Q: Did the entire federal government close?
A: Not all of it. By law, essential government services relating to public safety and national security must continue. This means that the military, air traffic controllers, the Border Patrol, the FBI, prison guards and many other U.S. government employees remain on duty.

But many facilities are closed and many services are unavailable. In a five-day shutdown in 1995, 800,000 federal employees were told not to report to work. Several weeks later, 240,000 employees were furloughed in a 21-day shutdown.

The US Capitol Dome at night in Washington DC.

— Photoillustration: Capitol by Getty Images

Q: Will Social Security benefit payments stop coming?
A: This did not happen during previous government shutdowns, so most analysts consider that highly unlikely. Social Security benefits are paid out of the program's trust fund, and don't depend on an annual congressional spending bill. They should be safe. During the 21-day shutdown in 1995-96, the staff necessary to pay existing benefits was considered essential and stayed on the job.

Q: Will there be any disruption to Social Security?
A: Possibly. During the 1995-96 government shutdown, the Social Security Administration stopped processing new applications for benefits, although as the shutdown dragged on, the agency eventually brought in more employees and renewed the process. It could also be harder to get questions answered and problems dealt with.

Q: What happens to Medicare?
A: New applicants had to wait in 1995-96. There should be no immediate impact on enrollees' medical services, health care experts say, though the reimbursement to doctors and hospitals could slow down if the contractors who process claims are deemed inessential. Still, doctors and hospitals aren't paid every day, so unless the shutdown continues for weeks, the effects are likely to be minimal.

File your tax return electronically, if possible, because those returns are processed automatically and refunds shouldn't be delayed.

Q: Will federal tax collection and refunds be delayed?
A: First, the filing deadline: your tax-return due date will remain April 18, says IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman. File electronically, if possible, because those returns are processed automatically and refunds shouldn't be delayed. There could be delays in processing paper returns and providing refunds for paper returns.

Federal borrowing and tax collection are considered essential services and continued during the last shutdowns — and those closures didn't even come during tax-filing season, when a substantial portion of tax receipts reach the IRS. It's hard to imagine that the federal government would ever delay cashing checks from taxpayers.

Q: How will veterans' benefits be affected?
A: Veterans Affairs services were curtailed in 1995-96. VA hospitals did not close; medical inpatient care and outpatient emergency care are considered critical services. But other services for veterans were cut back, and some benefit checks were reportedly delayed.

Q: What will happen to "meals on wheels" programs?
A: "A shutdown doesn't mean the money's all going to dry up immediately," says Peggy Ingraham, senior vice president for public policy with the Meals on Wheels Association of America. "But if it goes on for any length of time, absolutely, it's going to cause severe stress. These programs are already stressed."

Q: Are post offices closed?
A: No, the postal service is self-funded and will continue to operate.

Q: What government facilities are closed?
A: National parks, museums and monuments are very likely to lock their doors. In 1995-96, 368 national park sites closed, causing the loss of an estimated 7 million visitors. Museums and monuments lost another 2 million visitors. If you've reserved a campsite at a national park for a vacation, you could find it unavailable. Check ahead online or with a phone call.

Q: What about passport applications?
A: About 200,000 U.S. passport applications went unprocessed by the State Department during the 1995-96 shutdown, along with 30,000 visa requests from foreigners each day.

Q: Has Congress shut down?
A: No, Congress considers itself essential, and the law seems to agree. Members of Congress and the president are paid not through the appropriations bills that fund the government and pay federal workers, but rather by mandatory spending that is required by statute.

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