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Explainer-What happens when the U.S. federal government shuts down? By Reuters


© Reuters. FILEPHOTO: As the sun sets over Capitol Hill in Washington (USA), July 26, 2019, the dome of U.S. Capitol Building can be seen. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington is racing to avert a partial government shutdown that could lead to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers in the middle of a national health crisis.

Except for a politically elusive deal, most federal agencies’ funding will end at midnight Thursday. The federal shutdown will cause many government functions to stop. This is the third time in three years.

According to William Hoagland (a former congressional staffer who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Centre), museums and national parks will shut down and around three-quarters of federal civil workers of 2.1million will be prevented from work.

A shutdown plan for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicated that furloughs might affect 62% employees. This agency is central to America’s efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.

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If being absent puts life or property in danger, federal workers are allowed to continue working. Many would still have to work until funds are approved. Even those with less important roles may be fired.

In its shutdown plan, the Department of Health and Human Services promises “full support” to the CDC for all public health concerns. However, the budget problems will continue to be a problem.

David Reich, who was a congressional staffer and is now the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ think tank director, said “The agency is certain to operate at lower efficiency.”

As many public-health workers already feel stressed, this would make it even more difficult. According to a July CDC survey, public health professionals are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than ever before.

Anthony Fauci is the top official in infectious diseases for the United States. Last week, he told The Washington Post that a pandemic would cause a shutdown. Instead, the government should continue working on public safety.


When funding runs out, workers are allowed to temporarily clock in to activate department shutdowns. These include exempting employees from furlough, and sending a shutdown message via voicemail to the government.

According to the White House budget office, agencies are currently preparing plans. These have in the past included suspending passport and firearm applications processing.

The majority of government will remain on autopilot. It includes the mailing of Social Security pension check checks and payment for elderly bills. While soldiers can continue to fight in wars, many civilians working for the Department of Defense are going to be laid off.

All essential services could be affected eventually. Hoagland explained, “It is a management nightmare.”


To prevent the government’s shutdown or reopening, Congress must pass a budget bill. The House of Representatives passed last week a bill which would allow for renewed government funding. It also increased the federal borrowing cap.

Republicans are opposed to raising the debt limit. They will likely block the Senate bill as soon as Monday.

The Democrats could remove the debt limit measure from funding legislation to break the impasse. It would then need to pass quickly by both chambers in Congress. This will prevent a government shutdown.

In January 2019, the last shutdown was overturned after 35 days. This happened because several unpaid air traffic controllers called in sick. It caused flight delays, and also helped break a political deadlock on funding legislation.

Hoagland stated that disruptions to public health agencies could prevent a prolonged shutdown in times of pandemic.

Hoagland stated that the shutdown should be short because of how many people are still fighting against this virus.