From Tax Refunds to Restrooms, What the Shutdown Has Shut Down

Visitors to national parks will be prevented from using the full-service restrooms. Tourists won’t be able to get into the National Air and Space Museum after Sunday. The Internal Revenue Service will stop issuing refunds, but it will also stop conducting audits.

At first glance, the tangible consequences of the latest government shutdown may seem less than overwhelming. After all, the mail will still get delivered, airport control towers will still be staffed and the border patrol will continue to guard the country. But in ways large and small, the shutdown that began at midnight Friday could touch almost every aspect of American life.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission will stop investigating new victim complaints and taking fresh action against suspected wrongdoers. The National Labor Relations Board will stop investigating charges of workers’ rights being violated. The Bureau of Land Management will stop issuing permits for oil and gas drilling. The Federal Aviation Administration will stop issuing approvals for drones. The Justice Department will suspend civil litigation. The government will stop issuing Social Security cards, and anyone trying to visit a U.S. military cemetery overseas will find themselves barred at the gate.

Agencies have no shortage of options for declaring some of what they do exempt from the shutdown. Government functions that don’t depend on annual appropriations from Congress, for example activity financed by user fees or multi-year funds, will continue; so will activity that Congress has specifically exempted. Perhaps the largest exemption is any function deemed "necessary for safety of human life or protection of property."

How long the shutdown will last is impossible to guess; so too is which party will take more of the blame. But for as long as it continues, the shutdown demonstrates the nearly endless ways in which the federal government has come to affect the economy, the financial sector, the workplace and the environment.


U.S. Treasury building.
Photographer: Julia Schmalz

The Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, will send home more than 83 percent of its 88,268 workers.

  • About 1,000 employees will stay in place to manage debt, monitor domestic and international financial markets and policy coordination. Another 2,800 workers are exempt from the shutdown to avoid any disruptions with debt borrowing functions, debt collection, investment, debt accounting and Social Security disbursements.
  • At the IRS, tax refunds could take longer, depending how long the shutdown lasts. The agency lists work related to issuing refunds among tasks that won’t be excepted from the shutdown. But it wasn’t expecting to begin accepting 2017 tax returns until Jan. 29.
  • Other IRS functions to be suspended include audits, non-automated collections and processing 1040X amended returns, according to a contingency plan dated Jan. 17. (A more detailed list can be found here.)
  • An IRS spokesman had no comment on how a shutdown would affect implementation of the new tax law.

White House

The White House.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Executive Office of the President will be dramatically pared down, according to a memo released on Friday night.

  • The memo called for reducing the total number of workers in the office to 659, out of about 1,715 people on staff.
  • The White House Office, a subset of the executive office that includes many of the functions closest to the president’s decision making, will be cut from 371 staffers to just 152.
  • Twenty-one people will remain at the Executive Residence, as well as one person at the vice president’s residence.
  • Fourteen staffers will be working at the Office of the Vice President, from 16.
  • The National Security Council will retain all but one of its 45 staffers. 
  • Eight people will remain at the Council of Economic Advisers, from 24.

Securities and Exchange Commission

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) building.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer

Operations at the Securities and Exchange Commission are set to be sharply curtailed. 

  • Despite collecting fees from participants in the markets it regulates, Wall Street’s main regulator will shrink its staff to about 300 employees from almost 4,600, according to an agency plan posted in December.
  • The SEC plans to keep operating its Edgar corporate-filing system. But it won’t approve registrations for investment advisers, issue interpretive guidance, or review many pending applications or registrations for new financial products.
  • The commission will continue to deal with emergency enforcement actions like temporary restraining orders against accused market cheats. And it will continue to monitor its system for tips, complaints and referrals and operate its information systems, according to the plan.

At the 675-person Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the country’s main swaps regulator, the vast majority of activity will likewise grind to a halt. 

  • Under a plan submitted to the White House on Friday, just 69 essential employees will remain on the job to try to ensure “to the extent practicable, the oversight of the derivatives markets and to police those markets to ensure they are free of fraud and manipulation."
  • Still, the “vast bulk” of work by the commission will cease, according to the plan. For example, the agency’s enforcement division will stop reviewing and investigating new victim complaints, or taking new actions against violators. Much market oversight activities will also cease.

Business & Economy

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

The shutdown is likely to postpone the release of market-moving economic data, depending how long it continues.

  • In 2013, the Labor Department’s monthly employment report for September was delayed by 18 days, while the release of October figures was pushed back a week. 
  • Department of Commerce data were also delayed, including retail sales and housing starts, along with industrial-production figures from the Federal Reserve.
  • The Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which publishes data important to livestock and crop traders, won’t be releasing any reports on any day the government is shut down, according to department spokesman Damon Thompson.
  • For the central bank’s functions that aren’t related to economic data, it’s likely to be business as usual, since the Fed doesn’t rely on money appropriated by Congress to operate. That means checks will still be cleared and FedWire, used by the financial industry for large, time-sensitive credit payments, will continue to run.
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which relies on user fees and doesn’t get tax dollars, said it has enough money to remain open “for a few weeks” to process the hundreds of thousands of applications for patents on new inventions or trademarks for new products.
  • The Federal Communications Commission has funds to remain open through Jan. 26, spokesman Brian Hart said in an email. During the 2013 shutdown, the agency stopped accepting filings and ceased certifying that new electronic devices don’t cause interference.
  • Farm Service Agency offices in rural counties nationwide will be closed, and federal farm payments won’t be processed, according to the Agriculture Department.

Workplace Safety & Labor

Many programs at the Department of Labor designed to help workers will stop. Other federal offices designed to protect workers’ rights will also close their doors.

  • The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces contractors’ compliance with labor and civil rights laws, will cease operations.
  • The Trade Adjustment Assistance Program will stop processing new requests for assistance from workers who’ve lost their jobs to competition or offshoring.
  • The National Labor Relations Board will stop handling cases.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces workplace civil rights laws, will cease investigating charges and answering questions from the public.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will send home three-quarters of its staff, and suspend most workplace safety inspections. Some exceptions will be made, such as investigating "imminent danger situations," addressing first responders’ warnings of "high risk of death" and following up on "high-gravity serious violations."

Energy & Environment

Transmission towers in Illinois.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Oil, gas and coal companies should see little impact on day-to-day operations, as several federal agencies dip into non-lapsing appropriations and use exemptions to ensure most permits keep flowing and inspectors don’t stop examining drilling rigs and coal mines.

  • Bureau of Land Management employees will keep patrolling oil and gas fields to prevent theft.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to run normally for at least a week, and employees have been told to report to work on Monday.
  • Inspectors from the Interior Department will continue to visit offshore drilling rigs, and Labor Department inspectors will be evaluating high-priority mines.
  • In the event of a rig fire, mining accident or chemical spill, federal employees would still be deployed. 
  • But the federal government will stop issuing some permits for oil and gas drilling — at least for sites on land, as the Bureau of Land Management plans to halt that activity during a shutdown. 
  • Offshore, it’s a different story, as the Interior Department plans to keep vetting permits needed to begin new drilling in federal waters. Requested permit modifications, however, are set to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The Interior Department has said it will postpone planned public meetings on the Trump administration’s proposal to potentially sell drilling rights in most coastal U.S. waters.   
  • The Department of Energy "will be open for business on Monday," even if there is a government shutdown, spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in an email on Friday.
  • The programs that could be shuttered if there is a prolonged shutdown include include the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, or ARPA-E; the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which funds research into new technology; and the Office of Fossil Energy, which runs research and development activities for coal, oil and natural gas.
  • The Department of Energy is allowed to use unspent funds from the previous fiscal year for its operations.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that oversees pipelines and transmission lines, has the authority to keep operating as usual, using carryover funds from previous years. The agency had $32 million in unobligated budget authority at the end of the last fiscal year, potentially enough to conduct regular business for weeks. If the shutdown persisted long enough to exhaust those funds, some work would be suspended. Five commissioners and 49 staff members would stay on to monitor energy markets, electric grid reliability and keep up inspections of liquid natural gas and hydropower facilities.

Parks & Public Lands

Grand Canyon National Park.
Photographer: Daniel Acker

The administration is taking steps to mitigate the effect on national parks, which generally were closed in past shutdowns.

"National parks and other public lands will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures," said Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift.

  • The Trump administration is planning to keep some parks and concessions open. Most outdoor "wilderness-style restrooms," like composting toilets and pits, and open roads should remain open; campgrounds, full-service restrooms and other services that require staffing and maintenance won’t be. Private concessionaires may be permitted to continue operations, provided they find a way to remove snow and trash without government staff.
  • Any closures pose a threat to local economies that depend on tourism dollars tied to park visits — from the vendors inside the facilities to the hotels, stores and restaurants outside of them. This is the peak season for some sites, including Death Valley and the Everglades. During the 2013 government closure, five governors agreed to pick up the tab and spend state dollars to reopen at least a dozen national parks.
  • National forests will remain accessible, but are not officially open, said Agriculture Department spokesman Tim Murtaugh in an interview. Visitors centers will be closed and rangers will not be on the job. Still, law enforcement will continue to be present in the forests for visitors who enter at their own risk, he said.


Travelers walk through San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The transportation system will function at close to its normal level, at least initially.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic division will continue guiding flights and the Transportation Security Administration will operate airport security checkpoints, according to the agencies’ plans.
  • While FAA’s aviation safety inspectors will initially be furloughed, the agency’s plan is to gradually bring those employees back to work as they are needed to ensure airlines and other aircraft operators are safe, the agency said.
  • The FAA will cease approvals for drone operations requiring waivers, development of new air-traffic technology and training new air-traffic controllers.
  • A shutdown will slow work on the FAA’s certification of new aircraft. Work on approvals for two Boeing Co. models, which are expected to be completed within days, could be affected, said the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union representing FAA certification workers.
  • The agencies monitoring the borders — Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — are largely exempt from having to furlough employees during a shutdown.
  • A majority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 560 employees will be sent home, as the agency suspends enforcement, defects investigations, rule-making work and some research efforts.
  • Federal Transit Administration grants are to be halted, as are grants for high-speed rail projects administered by the Federal Railroad Administration.
  • Most investigative work at the National Transportation Safety Board will cease; the agency can bring back teams temporarily to investigate accidents with "significant casualties" or that identify urgent risks, the agency said. 
  • Amtrak, the government subsidized passenger train system, will continue normal operations, the railroad said on Friday.


A nurse administers a flu shot.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

About half the staff at the Department of Health and Human Services will be furloughed, according to a plan posted on the department’s website Friday. The resulting changes will reverberate across a range of functions that affect the average person.

  • The Food and Drug Administration will be "unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities," according to the shutdown plan. It will also stop conducting "routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports" and other programs.
  • The Centers for Disease Control said its "immediate response to urgent disease outbreaks, including seasonal influenza, would continue." It added that it would be "unable to support most non-communicable disease prevention programs."
  • The National Institutes of Health, which typically treats only those people for whom standard treatments don’t work, will stop admitting most new patients.
  • Food-safety inspections and other critical functions will continue at the Department of Agriculture.
  • Federally mandated nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school-feeding initiatives, will continue, but the Women, Infants and Children program and other assistance from the discretionary budget may be in danger of running out of funds.

Law Enforcement & Courts

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer stand outside the court. 
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The law exempts from the shutdown those employees who are deemed necessary to protect life or property. Most types of law enforcement and criminal justice fit into that category.

  • About 83 percent of the Justice Department’s 115,000 employees will continue to report to work if the government shuts down, according to the department’s contingency plan. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption; non-essential civil litigation is to be curtailed or postponed.
  • The Federal Trade Commission will suspend antitrust investigations not related to mergers. Merger reviews by the FTC and the Justice Department will continue. The agencies say they will go to court to challenge deals if necessary.
  • Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have enough money from sources like fines and filing fees to continue most operations through Feb. 9, according to Jackie Koszczuk, a spokeswoman with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
  • The Department of Homeland Security will remain largely unaffected, with 87 percent of its 232,860 employees deemed exempt from the shutdown. The department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.

National Security & Foreign Affairs

U.S. Army troops.
Photographer: Luke Sharrett

At the Defense Department, military personnel are expected to report for duty, but won’t get paid until the shutdown ends. As for civilian workers, those performing activities excepted from the shutdown, such as protecting property or lives or supporting combat operations, will likewise have to work; the rest can stay home. That doesn’t mean the department isn’t affected.

  • A shutdown can mean halting maintenance of weapons and other defense systems. Payments also stop for a range of services, including everything from money to contractors to death benefits for families of those killed in the line of duty.
  • Another casualty of a shutdown: at military bases around the country, so-called commissaries — what civilians might call grocery stores — will shut down, a complication for families at remote locations, according to Rebecca Grant, a military analyst and president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington.

The effects of a shutdown on foreign and trade policy may be minimal.

  • The State Department issued guidance on Friday saying that passport and visa services, as well as other agency functions, will stay open until the money runs out. Many bureaus in the department have reserves because they’re funded every few years or with money that can be saved indefinitely rather than spent within a year.
  • "The department will continue as many normal operations as possible,” said the guidance, posted on the State Department website. "Operating status and available funding will need to be monitored continuously and closely, and planning for a lapse in appropriations must be continued.”
  • The State Department says no new travel or "representational events” should be arranged. However, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hasn’t decided yet on whether to cancel a trip to Europe planned for next week.
  • A shutdown is unlikely to affect U.S. involvement in talks next week in Montreal on a new North American Free Trade Agreement, since negotiators from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office would be designated as essential staff.

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