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Government shutdown 101: What would a shutdown mean for you?

If the budget impasse causes the government to shut down after Friday, many ordinary Americans would feel it. Some services deemed 'essential,' though, would continue amid a government shutdown.

By Staff writer / April 7, 2011

With the Capitol in the background, a sign points visitors toward the many attractions on the National Mall in Washington, on Wednesday, April 6.

Evan Vucci/AP

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The phrase "government shutdown" sounds serious, and it is. If congressional leaders and President Obama can't reach a budget deal soon for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, many federal operations could grind to a halt.

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But it wouldn't be a total shutdown of the government. Many services – from Social Security checks to national defense – would continue largely uninterrupted.

As the clock ticks down, with Congress's current funding resolution running out at midnight on April 8, here's a guide to what the shutdown might mean for ordinary Americans.

First, an important caveat: Much about a shutdown remains uncertain. "A lot of information [about the shutdown] just doesn't exist yet," at least in the public domain, warns Roberton Williams, an expert on federal finances at the Tax Policy Center, an independent research group in Washington.

Agencies have been drawing up plans regarding which of their activities will be deemed "essential" and continue to function, even with a lapse in funding authority. The full details would emerge as a shutdown actually happens. And the consequences could deepen the longer a shutdown lasts.

Despite these uncertainties, some things appear clear based on what has happened during past shutdowns, and what some government officials have already said.

General operations interrupted. National parks would close, as would District of Columbia tourist sites such as museums on the National Mall. But the definition of "essential" can be subjective. In a 1995 shutdown, hot line calls to the National Institutes of Health concerning diseases weren't answered. Air traffic controllers were essential, but the State Department stopped processing visa and passport applications.

Social Security. Social Security checks would continue to be paid, but new enrollees might be delayed starting their benefits.

Medicare. In the 1995 shutdown, seniors' Medicare payments flowed as usual. Doctors and hospitals are expecting the same would occur this time.

Postal service. Mail delivery and post office operations should continue as usual, because the postal service operates with its own funding stream from those "forever" stamps and other postage fees.

Military and homeland security. Personnel deemed essential for national security would stay on the job, whether that's in Afghanistan, along the US border, or at an airport security checkpoint.

Taxes. Americans will still need to file their taxes on time (April 18). The Internal Revenue Service has said it will process electronic returns, but its processing of paper returns would be delayed by a shutdown. Will electronic filers get refunds promptly? They may soon find out.

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