Federal shutdown a possibility

Senate opponents of omnibus spending bill threatening delay

The federal government could shut down at midnight on Dec. 18 if the Senate doesn't pass a fiscal 2011 appropriations bill before then.

Opponents of the Senate’s $1.1 trillion fiscal 2011 spending package, which consolidates several spending bills, are threatening to order a clerk's reading of the bill as a procedural measure, which Senate sources believe could delay a vote on the package until Dec. 20 or Dec. 21.

[Update: Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) withdrew the omnibus bill late Thursday.]

Meanwhile, the federal government currently is operating at fiscal 2010 spending levels under a continuing resolution that expires at midnight on Dec. 18. If the continuing resolution dies before new funding, the government is considered to be shut down, although essential workers are expected to report to work.

One way to avoid that scenario is for the Senate to approve another short-term continuing resolution to keep the federal agencies funded for several days beyond Dec. 18.

On Dec. 14, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he would ask for a reading of the 1,924-page omnibus bill to protest the high levels of spending for earmarks.

“Democrats haven’t given Republicans or the American people time to read the bill, but I’ll join with other Republican colleagues to force them to read it on the Senate floor,” DeMint said.

The House passed its version of the bill Dec. 8.

From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the federal government shut down a number of times, for several days at a time. The longest-running lapse in operations occurred from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.

If a shutdown occurred this year, essential services would continue, including national security, air traffic, medical care, emergency services, and banking and financial services, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report in 2004.

At the same time, all nonessential services would cease and nonessential federal employees would be furloughed – put on immediate temporary, nonduty, nonpay status – for the duration of the shutdown, the CRS said.

The employee furloughs are not considered a break in service and are generally counted toward retaining benefits and seniority. Also, federal employees affected by shutdowns in the past have received their salaries retroactively. Employees continue to receive coverage from the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program for up to a year while in nonpay status, and the government will pay its share of the health-plan premium.

Nonessential activities affected in the 1995 to 1996 shutdown included closing parks and monuments; refusing new patients in clinical research programs; shutting down disease-surveillance information hotlines; halting toxic waste cleanup activity; delays in processing firearms applications and bankruptcy cases; delays in recruiting and testing of federal law enforcement officials; and suspending delinquent child-support cases.

Federal contractors would be affected as a result from the halt on all nonessential activity, including contracting activity. Under the Antideficiency Act, during a period of lapsed appropriations, the federal government may not spend or enter into contracts, according to the CRS report.

Under a 1980 memo from the Office of Management and Budget, however, there is a stipulation allowing for “essential” contracting service if they meet the definition of “providing for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multi-year or other funds remaining available for those purposes,” the CRS report states.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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