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Federal government shutdown FAQ

A federal government shutdown is a rare event.

The last time it happened Bill Clinton was president, the World Trade Center was still standing and nobody had heard of Bernie Madoff, Paris Hilton or three inferior "Star Wars" prequels.

Yet more than 15 years later, many of the same questions remain about a government shutdown. A few basic questions have answers, while more detailed ones rely on the whims of a constantly changing political environment.

But here are a few basic questions.

What is a government shutdown?

A shutdown would happen if Congress and the president cannot work out a deal to appropriate money to agencies for their operations and current funding measures end. Technically, the government runs out of money and has to stop operating.

What specifically shuts down?

If the government closes, agencies would launch their plans to downshift to a skeletal crew of essential employees.

Only a few jobs would be exempt from stopping during a shutdown. Those jobs include those that protect government property, such as federal buildings, or those that protect life, such as health care services or troop support. Often, Social Security Administration offices remain open and operational, as well as offices related to Medicaid and Medicare services.

Otherwise, senior agency officials will make specific decisions about jobs, although most employees would be affected. Still, work would be halted on a program-by-program basis.

If you're unsure, ask your manager.

Do I come to work?

The answer is it depends.


There are two types of shutdowns. In a “soft shutdown,” federal employees would come to work but could not do anything “productive,” that is, anything to carry out the central duties of the agency. They could clean up their desks.

A “hard shutdown” would mean employees are furloughed from work. Only those few exempt employee would come in.

The soft shutdown would only occur if the president believes there’s a chance for a rapid compromise with Congress. Hard shutdowns would signal a bleaker picture.

Will I get paid?

It depends. Congress has historically reimbursed federal employees for wages not paid during  the furlough. Either way, shutdown furloughs are not considered breaks in service and are generally creditable for retaining benefits and seniority.

Ask your managers for more details regarding your agency.

What if there’s pressing work that I need to get done and the furlough would give me a chance to catch up?

Employees will be turned away from the office. Contractors too will be turned away.

The government has a prohibition on taking voluntary work because it could be asked to pay for the work that was done and officials don’t want to get into that situation.

How will contractors be affected?

Contracts providing products and services won’t be affected in the same way despite using fiscal 2011 money.

Companies offering products will face changes in when and where they would make their deliveries, but the government likely will have already paid the companies for those products. However, services aren’t paid for when the contract is signed. Those companies may be paid a number of different ways, from quarterly payments for work to jobs done per day.

As a contractor, what should I do to prepare?

Contractors should talk with the contracting officers about what’s ahead and how to get things in order before a shutdown would happen.

Recognize contracting officers have a key role in giving guidance on what to do but remember that many decisions are made above their pay grade.

Sources: John Cooney, former general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget and now partner at the Venable law firm. Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council. The Congressional Research Service.

Posted by Matthew Weigelt on Feb 24, 2011 at 12:11 PM

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

What a waste of space, this article says nothing.

Mon, Feb 28, 2011

Don't worry, your insurance is still covered. For more info, see

Mon, Feb 28, 2011 Washington

Back in '95, most didnt use cell phones and/or the internet. Young people accustomed to having letter perfect technology (cell phones, blackberries, etc) may be more emotionally and physically affected, but us older people over age 40 will be able to weather the "shut-down" storm--we lived without these things before and are thus mentally able to handle the crisis better, thank you!!!!

Mon, Feb 28, 2011

What does this do to my insurance?

Fri, Feb 25, 2011

Citizens spoke at the voting machines in the 2010 elections. Yet while their choices reflected deep frustration with the government, unlike dictatorships around the globe, we enjoy a free, democratic society. We are fortunate that leaders have remained calm, threaten no violence against the people, and still govern. The country avoids anarchy.
Senators and Representatives do not stoop to calculating harm to the other party. Serve as a global model of good government. Let your hard work serve as an international model for challenge resolution, not postponement. Keep the government open and working on March 4th. Shutting it down will ultimately pile more harm on the citizenry.
As laid off federal workers tighten their belts and stop spending, the damaging economic ripple effect will cut into nearby states, cancelling recent gains. Punishing those who serve in the federal system will buy nothing but higher unemployment, and add acrimony to the entire situation. The people elected every one of your to lead, not to succumb to paralysis. INFLICT NO MORE HARM. Swallow egotistical pride and the need to “be right,” or to find “the perfect solution.” There is none. Give up some things, seek compromises and keep turning the crank to keep the nation moving forward. Thank you.

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