Shutdown won't shut down much of federal government

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WASHINGTON -- The mail will still arrive, along with Social Security checks. Air traffic controllers will monitor the skies, and troops will report for duty at home and overseas. Federal court will be in session, and veterans hospitals will continue to admit patients.

If the federal government shuts down at midnight, which will happen if Congress cannot agree on a bill to fund it, it will not completely shut down. Services deemed "essential" will continue -- an appellation that applies primarily to national security, but also to programs like public housing rental assistance and food stamps.

Locally, the federal courts will remain open, said Chief Clerk Robert Barth. The courts have a small surplus from fees they collect that allows them to remain fully functioning for 10 business days, Mr. Barth said. If Congress has not resolved its impasse by then, the courts would act like executive branch agencies and congressional staff, determining what is an essential duty and who is an essential employee. Mr. Barth said the direction from the court's administration in Washington is that "anything related to case management, civil and criminal cases, is considered essential."

That directive could be complicated, though, by what plans the Department of Justice comes up with for federal prosecutors. Mr. Barth said he assumed that if a judge schedules a trial for a certain date, that makes a federal prosecutor essential to handle the case, but the department has not yet released its shutdown plans, according to a spokesman.

Local and state governments, who depend on the federal government for a variety of funding sources, are keeping a wary but not panicked eye on Washington for now.

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said the city is closely monitoring how Community Development Block Grants are affected by the shutdown and any potential funding deal. The grants are the city's biggest source of federal funds, and severe reductions in the program have been a part of funding proposals.

A spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said state officials also are following the debate closely. "As long as any shutdown is not prolonged, it appears that we should be able to continue most services with minimal to no disruption," Kirsten Page wrote in an email. "However, depending on the developing situation in Washington, that could obviously change. Pennsylvania is working to address a significant budget shortfall, and a prolonged federal shutdown certainly would not make that process any easier."

The biggest impact for most people would be on their tax returns. Filers still have to meet that April 18 deadline, but the more than 30 percent who file by mail will see their refunds delayed. Obama administration officials said the Internal Revenue Service still needs to collect money from taxpayers who owe, so the online system will keep functioning -- and issuing refunds. Many IRS employees are seasonal, rendering the task even tougher to process an Everest of tax returns in the case of a lengthy shutdown.

Other disruptions include the Small Business Administration's approval of direct loans and loan guarantees, the Federal Housing Administration's underwriting of new home loans and approval of Environmental Protection Agency permits.

But the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will make sure the checks continue to flow. The Department of Veterans Affairs, because it is on a multi-year appropriations schedule, will operate as normal. The U.S. Postal Service is funded through its own revenue, so it will be business as usual there.

The biggest impact will be on federal employees. There were 70,003 in Pennsylvania as of December, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. Many of them will work; none of them will be paid. Employees deemed "essential" remain to do their work, while ones who are not are furloughed.

After the most recent shutdown, in 1995-96, all of those workers received back pay once the shutdown ended, but that's up to Congress.

Jeff Zients of the Office of Management and Budget told reporters at the White House on Thursday that in 1995, about 800,000 workers were furloughed, and about the same number is expected this time -- even though the federal workforce has swelled to more than 2.1 million. Most of that growth has been in the nation's national security apparatus.

For Pittsburgh-area federal employees, it remains to be seen how many will remain on the job in a shutdown. Officials at local branches of the Small Business Administration and Housing and Urban Development said Thursday that the final list of essential and non-essential employees had not been determined. "We're confident that they'll reach an agreement, congressional leaders, by Friday to avert that situation," SBA spokesman Carl Knoblock said.


Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello contributed. Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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