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Washington Watch: Here’s what would happen if Washington doesn’t prevent a government shutdown

Analysts don’t expect Washington lawmakers to let the federal government partially shut down later this week. But what happens if the government does shut down?

Past shutdowns — like the one that ended in January 2019 — have resulted in the furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers; closures of national parks and monuments; and delayed both tax refunds and the release of economic data. They have also cost the government billions of dollars and helped send stock prices


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Congress won’t let funding expire. Meanwhile, the Biden administration said on Sept. 23 that federal agencies are reviewing their plans in the event of a funding lapse. The government’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, and if lawmakers don’t agree to extend funding past then, a partial shutdown would ensue. It would be the first since the 35-day shutdown of late 2018 to early 2019, the longest one on record.

From the archives (January 2019): The government shutdown is ending, after becoming the longest on record — by a wide margin

Fast forward to the present day, and Washington, the nation and the world are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. During a shutdown in 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers were furloughed, in what the agency’s then-director has called “a terrible time” that meant discontinuing laboratory work and scaling back some tracking systems for disease.

Asked last week what impact a shutdown would have on the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the effort is on preventing a shutdown. “As we get closer, we can certainly discuss that, but right now that’s where our energies are,” she told reporters.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told the Washington Post that the government should be working “full blast” to address COVID and that “the worst time in the world we want to shut down the government is in the middle of a pandemic where we have 140,000 people a day getting infected and 2,000 people a day dying.”

Fauci also told the Post he would expect those working on the pandemic to be declared essential employees in the event of a shutdown — meaning they would keep working but likely not get paid.

Read: Dr. Fauci says the ‘worst time in the world’ for a government shutdown is in the middle of a pandemic

“The politicians aren’t brazen enough to shutter the government during a pandemic. A continuing resolution, probably passed on Thursday, will keep the government open until early winter,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist of AGF Investments, in a note on Monday.

The White House has asked Congress for a so-called continuing resolution to keep the government operating past Sept. 30.

Last week, the House passed such a stopgap spending measure to fund the government through Dec. 3, and also suspend the U.S. debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022. It is expected to be blocked in the Senate this week by Republicans, reports the Wall Street Journal. The GOP has insisted Democrats raise the borrowing limit on their own.

Barron’s: When will the Senate be voting on the government shutdown?

Pelosi implied that the spending bill could get a separate vote in the House, presumably minus the debt-limit suspension, the Journal wrote.

Now read: U.S. seen running out of cash between Oct. 15 and Nov. 4, as debt-limit drama continues

Government shutdowns don’t mean that federal work in Washington or the rest of the country grinds to a total halt. The Defense Department, for example, kept operating through the 35-day shutdown that ended in early 2019, and mail service is not interrupted. That’s because the Postal Service relies on revenues from stamps and service fees, not taxpayer funds.

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