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Longest Government Shutdown in History Taking a Toll

Social Security, Medicare benefits continue, but national parks and airports are suffering

A sign that says closed with the American flag flying above it

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En español | As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history enters its fifth week, many services that older Americans rely on — from Social Security to the U.S. mail — remain intact. But the prolonged disruption of nine major agencies is still having a widespread effect.

About 800,000 of the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers were furloughed without pay, although an estimated 450,000 “essential” employees are continuing at their posts. This week, President Trump signed a bill that ensures federal workers will receive back pay, but that won’t happen until the shutdown is over. And that legislation will not apply to the hundreds of thousands of contractors who work for the federal government.

The partial shutdown that began Dec. 22 affects the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development. These agencies are responsible for everything from inspecting the nation’s food supply to security checks at airports to processing income tax returns.

The rest of the federal government is fully funded. That includes departments like Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration, which pay Medicare claims and provide Social Security payments to retirees and people with disabilities.

And as the shutdown has progressed, more and more federal employees are being called back to work — most without pay. 

The Food and Drug Administration has recalled about 150 furloughed employees who next week will resume safety inspections on some medicines and high-risk foods like cheese, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula. The State Department says it found enough unused money in last year’s budget to bring back 8,000 furloughed diplomats and pay them for two weeks. And early in the shutdown, the Internal Revenue Service announced that more than half of its employees — 46,052 — would be brought back unpaid so Americans could get their income tax refunds on time.

But other government services that Americans rely on are either slowing down or shutting down. Transportation Security Administration workers who screen passengers at airports are randomly calling in sick, leading to longer-than-usual lines at security checkpoints. While some states are stepping in to keep popular national park facilities like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty open, most parks have no services, and even if their gates remain open, trash has been piling up for weeks. In addition, the Department of Agriculture has stopped issuing home loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers, and the Federal Housing Administration says it will not provide the approvals Americans need to get a reverse mortgage.

“There are a lot of areas that still affect your life even if they are not the frontline ones of Social Security and Medicare,” says Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar and veteran congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. 

The practice of shutting down the government because Congress hasn’t passed and the president hasn’t signed the necessary funding bills dates back almost 40 years, to 1980. Since then, there have been 20 partial or full shutdowns. Prior to the current record-breaking shutdown, the longest in history was in 1995; it lasted 21 days.

“The longer we have a shutdown, that can decrease people’s trust that government is capable of solving their problems,” says Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not good for us as a country over the long term.”

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