President Barack Obama and Congress have until March 27 to reach a budget agreement to avert a government shutdown. If they don't meet the deadline, federal agencies will halt many public services and send "non-excepted" workers home without pay. Let's look at some of the misconceptions about what happens when the U.S. government officially closes shop.
1. It won't happen this time.
The country has weathered several federal shutdowns over the years, and it could happen again. The last threatened shutdown was in 2011; it was narrowly avoided late on Friday, April 8, within an hour of the midnight deadline.
The longest shutdown in U.S. history, which also happens to be the most recent, occurred during Bill Clinton's presidency and lasted 21 days, from Dec. 15, 1995, until Jan. 6, 1996. It came only a month after a five-day shutdown from Nov. 13 to 19, 1995. From fiscal year 1981 through 1995, during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton presidencies, there were nine shutdowns, none lasting longer than three full days. Six shutdowns occurred during Jimmy Carter's presidency, between fiscal year 1977 and fiscal year 1980, ranging from eight to 17 full days.
This week, the Senate will vote on an amended House bill to keep the government funded. The bill will then go back to the House. But this Congress and this White House have been locked in stalemates too many times for us to feel certain that we'll avoid a shutdown: Think of the summer 2011 debt-ceiling fight, this year's sequester showdown and a near-certain battle over the debt limit coming up again this spring. With House Republicans and the Obama administration constantly at odds, why would we think any agreement between them would be inevitable?
2. Shutdowns have little impact on the general public.
Even during a government shutdown, many federal services would be available to the public. Self-funded agencies, such as the Postal Service, would stay open. Uniformed military personnel would stay on the job. And federal guidelines mandate that certain other services continue, including national security functions such as airport screening and border and coast patrol; customs inspections and air-traffic control; and some benefit payments and contractual obligations, such as borrowing and tax collecting (yes, you would still have to pay your taxes).