* Closing U.S. government for long can cause trouble
* Previous experience shows potential for serious
By Patrick Temple-West and Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON, Sept 29 The most iconic image from
the last big shutdown of the federal government in 1995 was also
its most misleading.
It was a sign on the door of the Air and Space Museum in
Washington saying "Due to the Federal Government shutdown, the
Smithsonian Institution must be closed. We regret the
But that shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan.
6, 1996 as Democratic President Bill Clinton battled a
Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, was a lot
more than an inconvenience.
And it offers lessons about what Americans might expect,
both in costs and reduced services, if a stalemate between
Republicans in Congress and Democratic President Barack Obama
leads to a shutdown on Tuesday.
The shutdown of 1995-96 held up passports for more than
200,000 people who wanted to travel. It stopped stock offerings
from coming to market. It blocked new admissions to the National
Institutes of Health, the government's illustrious medical
And yes, national parks across the country and museums in
Washington did close.
The paralysis produced millions of dollars in losses for
And costs to the federal government alone, according to an
analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, was $1.4
billion, most of it in back pay to furloughed workers who
collected later for the inconvenience of staying home.
Elaine Kamarck, who worked in the White House during the
1995-96 shutdown and now directs the Brookings Institution's
Center for Effective Public Management, said she remembers only
about 30 essential staffers manning the Executive Office of the
President instead of the hundreds who normally worked there.
IMPACT WILL BUILD
Kamarck said citizens in the rest of the nation - including
ones who rail about Washington - may think their state and local
services are intact until the trickle-down effects of a shutdown
"It will take a couple days, and things that people do not
think are part of the federal government will start shutting
down," Kamarck said, because money from Washington is what keeps
many of those services alive.
If the Tuesday shutdown materializes, it will be because of
a similar standoff - a political struggle in a divided
government over fiscal differences.
But the added complication is that Republicans want to delay
implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the president's
healthcare law and his signature legislative accomplishment.
The White House has said that item is non-negotiable, which
means that a deal to end a shutdown soon could be difficult to
Ironically, a shutdown would not halt or even delay the
launch of federal and state health insurance exchanges set for
Oct. 1 as part of the law, commonly known as Obamacare.
Its impact would depend entirely on how long a shutdown
lasts - hours, weeks or even months.
While most agencies are waiting for certainty before
unveiling specific shutdown plans, they have issued guidance
that makes the potential clear.
Workers will be on the job if they are responsible for
public safety, whether it's Coast Guard patrols or meat
inspections, or for fighting wars or guarding federal prisons.
Americans who depend on Social Security retirement payments
or health insurance from the Medicare program will not be
But more than a million federal employees will be off the
job for as long as the shutdown continues.
Figures provided by agencies underscore the challenges.
Securities and Exchange Commission guidance, for example.
says that the number of employees expected to be "on-board"
before implementation of the furlough plan is 4,149.
After implementation, the number retained because they are
involved in agency law enforcement activities or building
security is 252.
At the Internal Revenue Service, the total number of
employees prior to shutdown is 94,516. The total number
"excepted" from furlough is 8,752, leaving all but 9.3 percent
of workers at home.
Marvin Friedlander, a former IRS official who lived through
the mid-1990s shutdown, said many workers were tempted to sneak
home some business during their furlough, skirting rules that
said they were not allowed to work at all without congressional
But now that's harder to get away with.
IRS employees, for example, have special home computer
software installed to prevent leaks of taxpayer information.
The software tracks when an employee logs into IRS systems,
Now, he said, the agency tells employees, "If we find out
you worked at home, you're going to get fired."