(CBS Detroit) — The federal government seems to be heading for another shutdown. The government’s fiscal year ends Thursday, September 30, but lawmakers have yet to fund the government or suspend the debt ceiling. If nothing happens by Friday, most federal employees will stop going to work and many Americans could start to see a loss of some services.
How did we get here ?
The government spends more money than it receives in tax revenue. This annual budget deficit is paid by borrowing additional money. But there is a limit to how much the country can borrow to pay its existing obligations. This is called the debt ceiling. This cap is increased or suspended each time spending approaches its limit, allowing the government to borrow more money and stay open. But without an agreement in Congress, the Treasury Department cannot continue to pay the federal government’s bills.
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The debt ceiling was established more than a century ago to prevent federal agencies from ignoring Congress’s right to control spending. For decades, it was a relatively routine event without much fanfare. But the decision has become increasingly politicized in recent years.
On Monday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have suspended the debt ceiling until Dec. 22 and funded the government until Dec. 3, avoiding a shutdown. The votes followed party lines, leaving 10 short of the 60 needed to overcome a buccaneer. Reconciliation, which would only require 50 votes plus the vice president’s tiebreaker, is likely the next step.
If the government failed to raise the debt ceiling, it would soon run the risk of defaulting on its borrowings. Any default would be the first in the country’s history and would send tremors through the country’s and world’s financial markets. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress on Tuesday that the federal government will stop being able to pay its bills around October 18.
What services might see changes?
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If Congress does not raise or suspend the debt ceiling by midnight Thursday, a full government shutdown would begin Friday morning. Only essential federal employees will report for work that day and every day until the limit is raised. Non-essential employees would stop working. The federal government employs approximately 2.1 million people, not including the postal service. And each agency has its own shutdown procedures, so the definition of “essential” varies. In early 2018, when the government experienced a partial shutdown, around 850,000 workers stayed home. The potential reach of a shutdown this year could easily meet or exceed that number.
With each agency running its own closure plan, it’s unclear which services will be affected. Based on past experience, it seems possible that national parks will be closed to visitors. The parks were closed during the 2013 shutdown, but some remained open during the 2018-19 shutdown. The National Science Foundation, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology all suspended work three years ago.
Other government business will almost certainly be delayed as well. The Internal Revenue Service may stop verifying income and Social Security numbers, causing delays for personal loans. The Federal Housing Administration and Small Business Administration may also be unable to process new loan applications. Parts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health could go out of business, which seems less than ideal during an ongoing pandemic. It’s unclear how a shutdown would affect clinical trials of the COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 12.
What about essential services?
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Employees deemed essential must continue to report to work without being paid. Based on past closures, many services that millions of people rely on are expected to continue in the short term. This includes border protection, air traffic control, law enforcement and power grid maintenance. Mail will continue to arrive because the Postal Service is self-funding rather than relying on federal taxpayer dollars. Social Security checks and food stamps will also continue to arrive.