Hundreds of thousands of federal employees have gone on unpaid furlough starting Tuesday, victims of America’s 18th partial government shutdown.
These furloughs result when Congress fails to appropriate money to operate the federal bureaucracy or fails to pass a continuing resolution to maintain past appropriations. It was the failure to reach a deal between the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate for a continuing resolution this week that caused the current shutdown.
The Office of Personnel Management has put out this directive to the bureaucracy:
“In a shutdown furlough, an affected agency would have to shut down any activities funded by annual appropriations that are not excepted by law. Typically, an agency will have very little to no lead time to plan and implement a shutdown furlough.”
No one is quite certain of the exact number, but more than 800,000 workers went home Tuesday after reporting briefly – for a period of no more than four hours – to do the business of shutting down much of the machinery of government.
All national parks have closed. Americans who turn 65 this week cannot apply for Social Security or Medicare benefits. No one can ask for new Small Business Administration loans, complete an Internal Revenue Service audit or verify if a prospective employee is in the United States legally.
Even the hugely popular Internet “panda cam” at the National Zoo has gone dark.
How long will this last?
The first partial shutdown in modern times occurred in 1976, when President Gerald Ford vetoed the funding bills for the departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare, prompting those departments to close for 10 days.
The longest partial shutdown was the last, a 21-day period from Dec. 16, 1995, through Jan. 6, 1996. That was prompted by a squabble between President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress over whose timetable should be used to craft a federal budget. The two sides compromised.
It’s anyone’s guess, of course, how long the current spat will continue on whether the government should be shut down because some Republicans want a delay in implementing part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and Democrats do not.
Ironically, Americans are able to sign up for health insurance this week under so-called “Obamacare” because the Department of Health and Human Services set up a contingency plan that provides for staff to operate the program.