'World News' Fact-Check: What's a Government Shutdown Look Like?

Services would be scaled back, but shutdown does not mean shutting down.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2011— -- A government shutdown means many things -- but one thing it does not mean is that the government would shut down.

As Congress hurtles toward a breaking point in the clash over government spending, funding for the federal government is scheduled to expire on Friday. That's unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress can reach an agreement that's acceptable to the White House before then.

The likeliest short-term scenario would involve another temporary spending measure, to allow more time for final negotiations. Republicans have put forward a plan to shave $4 billion in spending in a two-week temporary extension, while Democrats in the Senate are discussing a similar level of cuts spread over a four-week period.

But another temporary extension would only delay the clash that could bring a temporary shutdown. Congress hasn't come this close to failing to approve government spending since the stand-off between President Clinton and GOP leaders of Congress in late 1995 and early 1996.

Federal agencies have detailed plans for how to act if the government runs out of money, though some questions remain regarding the specific impact.

If funding runs out, would government services cease?

No. Critical services will continue to be provided even if the stand-off continues for an extended period of time.

Soldiers at home and abroad will still be armed and fed. The Federal Aviation Administration will continue to direct air traffic.

Federal courts will remain open, with law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and border enforcement operations left intact as well. The Postal Service's employees are funded independently, so mail would be delivered as usual.

Expect, though, some quirks in dealing with the government if further funding isn't approved. You'll still be able to file your taxes, though calls to the IRS tax help line may go unanswered. Refund checks could be delayed, as tax processors are likely to be among those who are furloughed.

Still, more government functions are automated than during the last shutdown. Social Security checks and veterans' benefits would still go out, though new claims for services could be delayed if agencies follow practices from the last shutdown.

Would anyone be out of a job?

Yes. Perhaps a quarter of the more than 4 million federal workers -- a total figure that includes the Postal Service and the armed services -- could expect to have their jobs deemed non-essential.

They wouldn't be paid during any period when funding isn't in place, and they'd be barred by law from volunteering their services if they wanted to. Large chunks of employees at agencies including the Education Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would be without jobs to go to.

If Congress follows past practice, affected workers would receive back pay when the standoff is over. Less likely to be made whole are government contractors who could also be impacted if their services are considered non-essential by agency managers.

Would national parks and Smithsonian museums be closed?

Yes. As with the last shutdown, national parks and museums would be closed to visitors, as the park service and Smithsonian museums operate on bare-bones security and operational staffing levels.

At the National Zoo in Washington, the animals would still be fed and cared for. But while final arrangements haven't been determined, it's possible that waste removal services would be cut off temporarily.

Will members of Congress be affected?

Congress is considered an essential government function, so members of Congress and their staffs would be paid and would report to work as usual -- even though it would be their inaction leaving so many federal workers idling.

The same goes for White House and top administration staff. But some services would be affected; during the last shutdown, for instance, the presidential limousine famously went to a public car wash, because those who usually serviced the vehicle were furloughed.

What are the politics of a shutdown?

Political analysts generally agree that the two partial shutdowns that occurred in late 1995 through early 1996 were a net negative for congressional leadership, who appeared to shoulder much of the political blame for a situation the public viewed as senseless.

Then, as now, the standoff pitted a Democratic president against a new Republican majority on Capitol Hill that was committed to reining in government spending.

Intriguingly, the man perhaps held most responsible for the last shutdown -- then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- now argues that the stand-off was a net positive for the GOP, as it contributed to the balanced budgets achieved later in the decade.

Gingrich writes in a Washington Post op-ed published today that while a shutdown "is not an ideal result," it "would be far worse" for Republicans to break their word when it comes to cutting spending.

It's not clear, however, that the current House speaker sees things the same way. In a speech to be delivered today, Speaker John Boehner said that while Congress has a "moral responsibility" to cut spending, he recognizes that the public does not want government to shut down.

"This is very simple: Americans want the government to stay open, and they want it to spend less money," said Boehner, R-Ohio. "We don't need to shut down the government to accomplish that. We just need to do what the American people are asking of us."