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Government 'shutdown' to affect half of federal workers

Health care exchanges

State officials behind the start of President Obama's health care law on Oct. 1 told Reuters that they could weather a federal government shutdown.

Several officials running state-based insurance exchanges that are due to open for enrollment next month said they expect to have access to funds in the case of a shutdown, which, if it happens, would start on Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

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By The Associated Press
Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 5:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Here's the truth about a government “shutdown.” The government doesn't shut down.

So the world won't end if a dysfunctional Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill before the new budget year begins on Oct. 1.

Social Security checks will still go out. Troops will remain at their posts. Doctors and hospitals will get their Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. In fact, virtually every essential government agency, like the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, will remain open. Furloughed federal workers probably would get paid eventually. Transportation Security Administration officers would continue to man airport checkpoints.

Lurking around the corner is a far bigger danger: Sometime in late October or early November the government could run out of cash. The United States would be unable to pay all of its bills in full and on time for the first time in history if it couldn't borrow more money.

While the Treasury Department probably would make interest payments to bondholders to prevent a catastrophic default on the debt, it wouldn't be able to make other payments on time, which would mean delays in Social Security benefits and in paychecks for federal workers and troops in the field.

Americans would feel the pain.

To prevent a “shutdown,” Congress must pass a temporary spending bill before Oct. 1. To prevent a default, it must raise the $16.7 trillion cap on government borrowing.

Under current estimates, the “X date” by which the government can't meet all of its payments would come in the latter half of October or early November. So Congress needs to act by mid-October to be safe.

In the case of a shutdown, fewer than half of the 2.1 million federal workers subject to it would be forced off the job if the Obama administration follows the rules followed by previous Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That's not counting about 500,000 Postal Service employees or 1.4 million uniformed military personnel, who would be exempt.

The rules for who works and who doesn't date back to the early 1980s and haven't been significantly modified since. The Obama administration reissued the guidance on Wednesday.

The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual.

The Social Security Administration not only would send out benefits but would continue to take applications. The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would keep delivering the mail. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could continue to respond to disasters at the height of hurricane season.

Museums along the National Mall would close. National parks would be closed to visitors, a loss often emphasized in shutdown discussions.

The Capitol would remain open, however. Congress is deemed essential, despite its abysmal poll ratings.

From a practical perspective, shutdowns usually are not that big a deal. They happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each. During Reagan's two terms, there were six shutdowns, typically just one or two days apiece. Deals got cut. Everybody moved on.

In 1995-96, however, shutdowns morphed into political warfare, to the disappointment of Republicans who thought they could use them to drag Clinton to the negotiating table on a balanced budget plan.

Republicans took a big political hit, but most Americans suffered relatively minor inconveniences like closed parks and delays in processing passport applications.

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