Picture this: In the cold dawn light of next Tuesday, it turns out that Congress has been unable to avert a government shutdown. The fight over funding for the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – has not been resolved, and that’s thrown a wrench into the gears of federal programs.
Some will keep operating, at least for a while, and a few of the most essential programs won’t shut down at all. But many services that Americans have gotten used to will cease for now, and hundreds of thousands of federal employees will be furloughed.
As Sen. John McCain has warned, “We’ve seen this movie before.” That was in 1995/96, when Republicans took most of the blame.
It may well be that a shutdown still could be averted.
But if not, according to an Associated Press tally of federal agencies and programs, here’s the likely scenario as Congress plays out its Perils-of-Pauline political drama toward a possible government shutdown Monday at midnight:
Federal air traffic controllers would remain on the job and airport screeners would keep funneling passengers through security checkpoints. Federal inspectors would continue enforcing safety rules.
The State Department would continue processing foreign applications for visas and US applications for passports, since fees are collected to finance those services. Embassies and consulates overseas would continue to provide services to American citizens.
Social Security and Medicare benefits would keep coming, but there could be delays in processing new disability applications. Unemployment benefits would still go out.
Federal courts would continue operating normally for about 10 business days after the start of a shutdown, roughly until the middle of October. If the shutdown continues, the judiciary would have to begin furloughs of employees whose work is not considered essential. But cases would continue to be heard.
Deliveries would continue as usual since the US Postal Service receives no tax dollars for day-to-day operations. It relies on income from stamps and other postal fees to keep running.
All national parks from Acadia National Park in Maine to Yosemite National Park in California would be closed, as would the Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo in Washington. Visitors using overnight campgrounds or other park facilities would be given 48 hours to make alternate arrangements and leave the park. Among the visitor centers that would be closed: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, and the Washington Monument.
New patients would not be accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, but current patients would continue to receive care. Medical research at the NIH would be disrupted and some studies would be delayed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be severely limited in spotting or investigating disease outbreaks.
The Food and Drug Administration would handle high-risk recalls but suspend most routine safety inspections. Federal meat inspections would be expected to proceed as usual.
A small number of Head Start programs, about 20 out of 1,600 nationally, would feel the impact right away. The federal Administration for Children and Families says grants expiring around Oct. 1 would not be renewed. Over time more programs would be affected. Several of the Head Start programs that would immediately feel the pinch are in Florida. It's unclear if they would continue serving children.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, could shut down. The program provides supplemental food, health care referrals, and nutrition education for pregnant women, mothers, and their children.
School lunches and breakfasts would continue to be served, and food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would continue to be distributed. But several smaller feeding programs would not have the money to operate.
Americans would still have to pay their taxes and file federal tax returns, but the Internal Revenue Service says it would suspend all audits. Got questions? Sorry, the IRS says taxpayer services, including toll-free help lines, would be shut as well.
Many low-to-moderate incomes borrowers and first-time homebuyers seeking government-backed mortgages could face delays during the shutdown. The Federal Housing Administration, which guarantees about 30 percent of home mortgages, wouldn't underwrite or approve any new loans during the shutdown. Action on government-backed loans to small businesses would be suspended.
NASA will continue to keep workers at Mission Control in Houston and elsewhere to support the International Space Station, where two Americans and four others are deployed. The National Weather Service would keep forecasting weather and issuing warnings, and the National Hurricane Center would continue to track storms. The scientific work of the US Geological Survey would be halted.
The majority of the Department of Homeland Security's employees are expected to stay on the job, including uniformed agents and officers at the country's borders and ports of entry, members of the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration officers, Secret Service personnel, and other law enforcement agents and officers. US Citizenship and Immigration Services employees would continue to process green card applications.
The military's 1.4 million active duty personnel would stay on duty, but their paychecks would be delayed. About half of the Defense Department's civilian employees would be furloughed.
All 116 federal prisons would remain open, and criminal litigation would proceed.
Most services offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue because lawmakers approve money one year in advance for the VA's health programs. Veterans would still be able to visit hospitals for inpatient care, get mental health counseling at vet centers, or get prescriptions filled at VA health clinics. Operators would still staff the crisis hotline, and claims workers would still process payments to cover disability and pension benefits. But those veterans appealing the denial of disability benefits to the Board of Veterans Appeals will have to wait longer for a decision because the board would not issue any decisions during a shutdown.
Federal occupational safety and health inspectors would stop workplace inspections except in cases of imminent danger.