You've probably heard a far bit about the budget jostling on Capitol Hill recently. Now I imagine most of you don't hang out in bars where C-SPAN is on round the clock, so you may not be totally up on all the ins and outs, but there's a very real chance that by the close of buisness March 4th, the Federal Government will be operating without a budget.
To grossly oversimplify the issue, the Federal Government authorizes and appropriates funds on a yearly budget. Once that budget runs out at the end of the Fiscal Year (Sept 30), Congress and the President can approve a temporary extension, or Continuing Resolution (CR). This is what the Government has been operating under since October, and the current one runs out March 4th. On that day, thanks to Art. I, Section 9 of the US Constitution (look it up yoursefl!) and the Anti-deficiency Act, it is now illegal for the Federal Government to pay its workers, outside of essential folks. The Congressional Research Service recently wrote an excellent report (.pdf) if you're a government affairs junky.
Now, you can drive a truck through the loopholes of what I just wrote, but the short answer is, without a new CR, most non-essential government work stops after March 4th, and much of what you're coming to see in Washington is government work. So, in the very real, but not certain, event Congress doesn't approve a budget, or at least a short term CR, what will be open on the 5th?
It's a little hard to say, actually. Lessons from previous shutdowns, especially the legnthy 21 one in 1995-6 are instructive, but it won't be an exact copy. Different Administrations will find different things "essential", so just because something was closed in 95, don't necessarily assume the same will be true this time. But it's a good bet.
The Federal Government claims to have a plan for an orderly shutdown this time. "There have been contingency plans for government shutdowns since 1980, and those plans are obviously updated accordingly, but they've been around for a long time," according to White House press secretary Jay Careny in a recent press conference. However, what those contingency plans involve seems to be tightly held, details are illusive for what that means exactly.
But let's run through some of the big ticket items and combine what we know with some educated guesses.
- Smithsonians: According to Linda St. Thomas, Chief Spokesperson of the Smithsonian, "We don’t know yet, but since 2/3 of our employees are federal employees who will not be permitted to work, then it is likely that we would have to close the museums and the National Zoo to the public." So the safe bet is to plan for the Smithsonians to be closed for the duration of the shutdown. But there is hope; in the 1996 shutdown, the Air and Space Museum was partially open as revenue from the IMAX Theater, Planetarium, and other concessions covered operating costs for the Museum. Additionally, the National Museum of American History used it's private trust fund to "hire" 28 employees to open the Museum for a week. So don't plan on seeing the Hope Diamond, but you might get lucky. And the gift shops might remain open as well.
- Other Federal Museums: While neither the National Gallery of Art nor the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are part of the Smithsonian, they operate in a similar fashion. As such, they will probably close, much as they did in the last shutdown.
- Monuments and Memorials: The Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, and other Memorials are run by the National Park Service. National Park Service spokesman Bill Line declined to comment and referred me to the Department of Interior, which so far has not returned phone calls, so to date, it is unknown what the actual status of National Monuments will be in the event of a shutdown. However, in previous shutdowns, the Memorials were closed. As a practical matter, you will probably still be able to walk around the Mall, but entering the Memorials will be prohibited. But hey, who's going to stop you? Haven't all the Rangers been sent home? And please bring your own trash out; collection on the Mall may stop.
- Ford's Theatre: The Theatre is run in a partnership between the National Park Service and the Ford's Theatre Society. So while the Park Service will likely stop it's portion, the Ford's Theatre Society will be able to continue with it's programming, which includes its educational programming, evening shows, and their excellent walking tours. So expect some reduction in the Museum and access to the Theatre, but don't throw away tickets to Liberty Smith yet!
- Arlington National Cemetery: The Cemetery is run by the Department of the Army, and will almost certainly continue to perform its primary mission of burying servicemembers. But don't hold your breath on it remaining open to visitors. And even if it does, keep in mind that Robert E. Lee's House is operated separately from the rest of the Cemetery by the National Park Service and would be closed.
- The Capitol Building: Here we run into an interesting issue. Congress's budget, which includes the Library of Congress and the Botanic Gardens, is funded through a separate budgetary process. When asked about the Capitol remaining open, Architect of the Capitol spokesperson Eva Malecki told me "We have plans in place to ensure that we continue to fulfill our mission to serve Congress under any and all circumstances." Presumably one of their missions is for the Capitol Building to remain open to visitors, so I'm optimistic access to the Capitol, Botanic Gardens, and Library of Congress will continue uninterrupted.
This is obviously fairly early in the process, and no one wants a shutdown to happen (right? right!?!!). Ideally this is all for nothing, but I'll update if we get more specifics.
And does all this mean you should cancel your trip to Washington in the coming weeks? Absolutely not! Tomorrow we'll cover what will be open, and some tips to still enjoy your time here.