Pandas at the National Zoo would still get fed, but the park would be closed to the public.

Pandas at the National Zoo would still get fed, but the park would be closed to the public. Leonid Smirnov/

Shutdown Threat Has Federal Agencies in Scramble Mode

Agencies must update their contingency plans.

The government may shut down next week, but the National Zoo’s baby panda still needs to eat.

“We would never, ever leave the animals unattended,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the zoo.

But the zoo -- along with all the Smithsonian museums and many other facilities operated by the federal government -- would not be open to the public during a shutdown, St. Thomas said.

“The zoo will have keepers, veterinary staff, commissary, security, some facilities people; there will be a number of people there who will be exempted,” she explained. And among those essential personnel are staffers who care for the panda cub born on Aug. 23. Asked whether the new arrival would continue to be fed, St. Thomas laughed. “I think her mother is taking care of that, actually.”

The continued care for the animals at the National Zoo illustrates two important points to remember about the looming government shutdown: The government controls the process, and a shutdown doesn’t mean everything suddenly goes dark.

While the decision to force a shutdown lies with Congress, the executive branch and its agencies are able to determine the way it is done through contingency plans that are drawn up ahead of time.

“At this time, prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action,” Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Emily Cain wrote in an e-mail to National Journal Daily. “This includes agencies reviewing relevant legal requirements and updating their plans for executing an orderly shutdown, as outlined in the guidance OMB issued last week.”

Much of the government will remain open in the event of a shutdown. The failure of Congress to pass a continuing resolution would result in a temporary lapse in federal discretionary budget authority, which means programs dependent on these funds would likely close. However, programs that are permanent law and those receiving mandatory or multiyear funding would continue to be funded.

The Postal Service would continue because it is not funded through annual appropriations. Social Security checks would still be sent out and Medicare would continue because the entitlement programs rely on mandatory, rather than discretionary, funding sources. However, new applicants will likely not have their applications processed until funding resumes; in the shutdown of 1996, more than 10,000 Medicare applicants were turned away each day.

Some supportive services for these programs that rely on discretionary funds could continue running as well. “Even in a shutdown, discretionary spending would have to continue because the existence of mandatory programs would mean there have to be people available for them to run,” said Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

National security operations and programs, and employees considered essential to protection of life and property, will not be affected. These include air-traffic control, immigration, border security, emergency and disaster assistance, and law enforcement, among others.

While nonessential government workers would be furloughed, essential workers would continue in their capacities, though often without immediate compensation. If and when employees are compensated retroactively is up to Congress.

This would have a large impact on the Defense Department this year, which was not the case in 1995 and 1996. Whereas four appropriations bills had passed before the last shutdown -- including defense -- none have been approved this year. Troops would thus be required to continue working without compensation to them or their families. “All military personnel will continue to serve and accrue pay, but will not actually be paid until appropriations are available,” said House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. He warned that a shutdown will hurt both readiness and morale.

Regulatory agencies would also be strongly affected, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which will “effectively shut down,” according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. She told reporters Monday that the agency would not be able to pay employees unless Congress approves a budget, and only some staff would remain on hand in case of emergencies.

The National Institutes of Health directed press inquiries to OMB, which has not yet made agencies’ updated contingency plans publicly available. But during the shutdown over the fiscal 1996 budget, NIH stopped accepting new patients into its clinical center, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The report also said NIH stopped answering calls to its hotline, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped disease surveillance.

Other routine government operations would also be temporarily shut down, including the National Park Service.

Washington would likely be hit harder than most areas by a government shutdown, as the D.C. government is the only one forbidden from spending local funds during a federal budget lapse. Public-safety exceptions still hold true, so police, EMS, and firefighters would remain on duty, and the city’s public schools would stay open. However, trash collection and street sweeping would be suspended, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Public Works, and others would close.