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The Shutdown Myths
The debate over the government shutdown should acknowledge its limited effects.


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Andrew Stiles

Several hours remain until government funding expires, and if Congress cannot agree on a resolution to continue that funding before midnight, the government will shut down. If that happens, Democrats will be ready with countless horror stories about the consequences of extremist Republican obstructionism, so it’s worth examining the details of what will and will not occur during a government shutdown.

One common argument is likely to be that Republicans, in forcing a government shutdown, are hurting the most highly respected government employees: our troops. But according to the Department of Defense, funding for active-duty military personnel, as well as military operations in Afghanistan, will be unaffected by a government shutdown. About 400,000 civilian defense employees, on the other hand, could face furloughs, according to the Pentagon’s contingency plan.

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Troop paychecks could potentially be delayed if a shutdown lasts longer than a week, but that risk could be averted if the Senate passes a bill to ensure that military personnel are paid on time in the event of a shutdown. The House has already passed the measure, by a vote of 422–0.

Several hundred thousand non-defense federal employees would indeed face furloughs if the government is “shut down.” Individual agencies would be tasked with determining the number of “non-essential” workers to send home. National monuments, museums, and parks would close; even the “panda cam” at the National Zoo would go offline.

Congressional and White House staff would undergo a similar process. But members of Congress and President Obama would continue to receive their six-figure salaries, although the president’s paycheck could potentially be delayed if the shutdown continues for some time. Congress does have the authority to retroactively reimburse furloughed workers for missed pay, and did so after the shutdowns of the mid 1990s.

Many government services would also be unaffected if the government “shuts down.” The U.S. Postal Service would continue to deliver mail, food-safety inspection would continue largely unabated, as would disaster-relief efforts and law-enforcement activities. Seniors would continue to receive Social Security benefits, which are classified as mandatory spending, and the federal workers involved in the distribution of such benefits would continue to work to ensure they are processed on time.

The government will continue to pay unemployment benefits during a shutdown, as it did in 1995, according to the Department of Labor’s contingency plan. Food-stamp benefits would also be unaffected because the program’s funding, as allocated in the stimulus package of 2009, does not expire until next year. The federal school-lunch program should have enough flexibility to avoid funding shortages.

And yes, even the implementation of Obamacare would proceed apace, provided the president does not unilaterally decide to delay it further. State- and federally run health-care exchanges — at least those whose implementation is going ahead on time — will still open on Tuesday, and other core aspects of the law will continue to receive funding, via mandatory appropriations. Proponents of passing a continuing resolution that keeps government open but explicitly defunds all of Obamacare often cite this as a motivating factor for their strategy.

As few will be pleased to learn, the IRS would continue to collect taxes during a government shutdown, although it would have to suspend all auditing activities (perhaps granting tea-party organizations a temporary reprieve).

Because so many government operations would continue under a government shutdown, and because Congress has typically voted to reimburse the missed paychecks of furloughed workers, a government shutdown probably wouldn’t cut spending. By some estimates, in fact, the shutdowns of the mid 1990s actually cost the government more than $1 billion.

Democrats and a sympathetic media can blame Republicans for the consequences of “shutting down the government” all they want; Republicans will continue to point fingers at President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The American people will ultimately decide for themselves, but an honest debate won’t be possible if partisan agitators insist on suggesting that a shutdown means putting at risk Social Security benefits, food-safety inspection, and funding for the troops.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.



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