They call it a “government shutdown.” But of about 4.1 million people who work for the federal government, about 80% will still be expected to show up for work.
We still don’t have an exact number of federal employees who won’t be working in a shutdown, but most press reports have been pegging the number around 800,000, the number who stayed home the last time the government shut down in 1996.
The roughly 3.3 million federal employees who will have to work fall into three main categories:
1. Workers whose pay is not subject to annual appropriation. Remember, a shutdown only means there’s no money for “discretionary spending,” the part of the federal budget that must be appropriated annually by Congress. But a lot of federal employees are paid from sources other than appropriations.
The biggest example here is the U.S. Postal Service, which has over 500,00o employees and which is (more or less) funded by its own postage revenues. Other examples include the U.S. Mint (funded by the sale of coins), the Federal Reserve (funded by profits on its investment activities) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (funded by fees on banks).
Some government agencies that are funded only partly by appropriations will be able to stay open (and pay their employees) for a while during a shutdown even if they couldn’t stay open without congressional appropriations forever. The State Department will continue consular operations, such as the issuance of passports, “as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations.” Amtrak expects to stay open because it can rely, at least for a while, on ticket revenue.
These workers are the lucky ones: Not only are their jobs not disrupted by a government shutdown, but they’ll also get to collect paychecks while the government is shut down.
2. Workers whose jobs are necessary to carry out activities that are not subject to annual appropriation. Here’s the best example: Social Security benefits are mandatory spending, meaning they’re supposed to go out even if Congress has not passed any appropriations bills. But the workers who actually process Social Security benefits have their salaries paid out of appropriations.