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What closes and what keeps running in a federal government shutdown

Government funding runs out at the end of the day on Sept. 30, meaning many federal government services will halt until funding resumes.
AFP via Getty Images
Government funding runs out at the end of the day on Sept. 30, meaning many federal government services will halt until funding resumes.

Lawmakers are inching closer to a government shutdown when government funding runs out at the end of the day on Sept. 30. With a deal nowhere in sight, federal agencies are bracing to place hundreds of thousands of workers on unpaid furlough until funding is restored.

The federal government hasn't faced this dilemma since 2018when the federal government shut down for 35 days, stretching into the new year in 2019. As in shutdowns past, people across the country will see a pause in federal services, programming and pay.

Washington, D.C., residents and visitors could feel the impact quickly. Smithsonian facilities will remain open until money runs out. Then they will close, which could dampen the celebrations to say goodbye to the giant pandas in the National Zoo. Wildlife lovers outside of D.C. could see the National Park Service's highly anticipated "Fat Bear Week" interrupted as well.

Elsewhere, the impacts of a shutdown are likely to snowball as employees go without pay and programs run out of funding to operate.

Still — many services will still be available. The Food and Drug Administration will continue "All vital FDA activities related to imminent threats to the safety of human life," Social Security checks will still be issued, Veterans Affairs facilities will remain open. Air traffic and airport personnel will still be on the job, even if without pay, unless employees begin to call in sick to work as they did during the last shutdown.

Another institution still running when the money runs out? Congress. They'll keep working without pay, including many of the staffers that keep the Capitol running.

Although most major federal agencies have not announced their plans for what would stay open and closed during a potential shutdown, here's what we see could be affected and what could continue.

Federal employees could be furloughed or asked to work without pay

The National Federation for Federal Employees, one of the unions that represents federal workers, estimates that 2.1 million civilian federal workers could see delayed paychecks and roughly 4 million federal contract workers could receive no paycheck.

A representative for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington told NPR the organization is making preparations for as many as 100,000 federal workers who could need food assistance if the government shuts down.

Nutrition and food assistance programs could be paused

The Agriculture Department, which runs the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women Infants and Children (WIC) programs, is preparing for the nearly 7 million pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children who rely on WIC to lose access during a shutdown.

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service is likely to run out of funding to support normal WIC operations just a few days into a shutdown, according to USDA. The impact on WIC would likely be staggered because some states may have carryover funds or can use their own funds to continue program operations for different amounts of time.

Still, Kate Franken, board chair for the National WIC Association, urges families to still seek benefits they think they might qualify for.

"I do think it gets to be really confusing for the public when they see information about a federal government shutdown and wonder what that means for various programs and services that they receive," Franken said. "There's a risk, and we've experienced this before during shutdowns, where families just sort of assumed that they can't use their benefits or that they shouldn't go to their appointment because services may be closed."

Households that receive SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, will receive October nutrition assistance as usual regardless of a potential shutdown. It is unknown how November benefits may be impacted should a shutdown persist.

Social services for food and education come to a halt

Head Start, which supports education for 3- and 4-year-olds across the country, and Meals on Wheels, which brings food to elderly people, could also get interrupted.

National Parks are expected to close

Visitor centers, campgrounds, research facilities and museums could be closed for the duration of a shutdown. This would affect events and attractions scheduled for these sites. Depending on how long the shutdown persists, this could create interruptions during the Indigenous People's/Columbus Day three-day weekend for many.

Last week, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haalandasking the department to use the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to keep national parks and public lands open during a shutdown. Funds from the law were used in 2018 to keep most parks open.

Health care is likely to go uninterrupted, but research could pause

People who get health care or health insurance from the federal government, whether that's through Medicare or the Indian Health Service, should not experience any interruption in their care. They would still still go to the doctor and still make appointments.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has enough money to keep paying states for Medicaid and CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, for at least for three months. That's good news for around 90 million low-income people who rely on those health insurance programs

However, community health centers that get their funding from federal grants could see their funding interrupted by a shutdown. Some clinics are warning they may need to cut back services or staff depending on the timing of the possible shutdown and how long it lasts.

Other disruptions could occur at federal health agencies. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services says 42%of agency staff would be furloughed. The National Institutes of Health would furlough nearly 80% of its staff — the only work that would continue is caring for patients at NIH's research hospital.

Service members would also work without pay

A shutdown would likely affect some 1.3 million active-duty servicemembers who would continue to work but would not get a paycheck. Of the estimated 800,000 Pentagon civilians, some 200,000 would be required to work without pay, because they are "excepted" and roles considered "necessary to protect life and property."

Another 439,000 of those would stay home without pay, the remainder are paid outside annual appropriations and wouldn't be affected. The White House says all this would be disruptive to national security. The servicemembers are paid twice a month, and the next payday is Friday, Sept. 29.

Military commissaries in the U.S. and abroad — which are basically neighborhood grocery stores — will stay open for approximately 60 days into the new fiscal year without appropriations, according to the Defense Department. After the funds run out, only overseas and remote locations will stay open, they warn.

The shutdown would also affect those servicemembers scheduled to move to a new assignment. That travel would be halted during a shutdown.

Federal law enforcement efforts could slow

Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said a lack of funding also means that there are no resources for federal agencies to continue participating in federal-state-local task forces. He said this includes those working on human trafficking investigations, to disrupt terrorist operations, and crack down on drug violations.

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.