The below article was posted on September 27, 2023. Read the updated October 2, 2023, article “Crisis Averted! No Government Shutdown. For Now.

 The end of fiscal year (FY) 2023 is approaching. Midnight on September 30 marks its end and, probably, the start of a federal government shutdown. To date, U.S. Congress has yet to pass a single spending bill for FY 2024, which begins October 1, 2023. Similarly, there has been no successful effort to pass a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government open while Congress continues to debate FY 2024 spending bills. A continuing resolution temporarily funds the government in the absence of full appropriations bills, often by continuing funding levels from the prior year.

The federal government has been shut down ten times. The 2018-2019 shutdown was the most recent, and the longest, at 35 days. It is unclear how long a 2023 shutdown might be, but federal agency staff are being told to prepare for a month-long closure. While there is still time to avert a federal government shutdown, it is prudent to consider what happens when the federal government shuts down because Congress does not pass the legislation required to fund agencies and programs.

What Happens During a Federal Government Shutdown?

When there is a government shutdown, federal agencies are required to classify their employees as either “essential” or “non-essential.” The employees classified as “essential” continue to work during the shutdown but without pay. Employees classified as “non-essential” are laid off and without pay. And, while most associate the federal workforce with the nation’s capital, only 15 percent of the 2.19 million civilian full-time federal employees in the United States work in the Washington metro area. The other 85 percent work elsewhere around the country. The lack of paychecks will have economic effects on communities nationwide.

Federal agency contingency plans provide helpful information about how agency deals with an interruption in funds. Most plans have been updated within the past three years, but some have not been updated since the last full shutdown in early 2018. These plans include information on how many employees will be furloughed during a shutdown, and what—if any—operations will be deemed essential and continue to operate. Most federal employees are expressly prohibited from checking email, taking calls or doing any federal work. That prohibition will start at midnight on September 30.

For those receiving federal funds from a research agency or via other federal programs, it is a good idea to check in with the program officer or any other federal employees important to the work and get any needed information or support before midnight on September 30, 2023. Funding is distributed to awardees or partners differently by every agency. For example, the Department of Education has already distributed funds to states and schools for the current school year, so programs like Title I—funds that support schools in poverty-stricken communities—or 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds that support after school programs, won’t be affected. Student loans and Pell Grants should also be fine. In contrast, a shutdown could pause Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance for millions. A shutdown would affect the nearly seven million women and children who rely on WIC for healthy food. Free school lunch and Meals on Wheels are also at risk, and SNAP could be impacted eventually, too.

Much has been said in the press about how a shutdown would adversely affect military personnel and families. It could mean hundreds of thousands of service members and civilian workers won’t get paychecks starting this weekend, unless Congress passes emergency legislation to ensure America’s military continue to get paid. The Pentagon is sounding the alarm; a spokesperson told reporters recently that over one million service members, as well as furloughed civilian employees, would go without pay during a shutdown.

A shutdown will also affect access to federal facilities. Those who regularly access a federal facility as part of their work should check on how a shutdown might affect that access as soon as possible. In addition, while the State Department says passport processing will continue during a shutdown, if the public needs access to a federal building as a part of that process, they could find themselves locked out. 

Can a Shutdown Still be Avoided?

It is highly unlikely. There are essentially two ways to avoid a government shutdown – by passing appropriations bills or a continuing resolution. Theoretically, the House and Senate appropriations committees are supposed to pass 12 different appropriations bills that are broken up by subject area and based on funding levels allocated in a budget resolution. Often, these bills are combined into larger “omnibus” or “minibus” legislation.

To avoid a shutdown, Congress would need to pass all 12 appropriations bills through both chambers and get them signed by the president by the end of the day on September 30. That is very unlikely. So far, neither the House nor the Senate has proposed a CR for FY 2024 that could be approved by both chambers and president. The broad disagreements are over whether discretionary spending levels should adhere to the spending caps enacted in the Fiscal Responsibility Act this summer, along with the debt limit suspension, or, as House Republicans would like, significantly lower. Supplemental appropriations, including funds for disaster relief and for additional Ukraine support, as well as addressing the crisis at the country’s southern border, are among other points of contention as Congress considers a CR. There’s a lot to sort with not a lot of time left.

Della Cronin is a principal of the firm, operating from the Washington, D.C. office. Della brings over 20 years of experience in education and research policy, legislative and regulatory processes, fundraising and public affairs to the firm, having worked for a broad array of education companies and interests.

Della has managed corporate and national partnerships, communications for a corporate foundation, as well as outreach and public awareness efforts, and worked with the Department of Education to inform college campus officials about policy changes resulting from reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. She organizes Capitol Hill briefings and Congressional advocacy days, and has encouraged groups she works with to integrate social medial elements into those events. She also is a frequent speaker on the topics of federal education and research policy, as well as the ins and outs of policymaking in Washington, D.C.

Bose Public Affairs Group is a fully integrated public affairs firm dedicated to successfully navigating clients through the many pathways of political, legislative, regulatory, communications and media environments.