What a Federal Government Shutdown Will Mean for Houston

If the government doesn't reach a deal, there will be (expensive) fallout.

By Dianna Wray January 18, 2018

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Republican congressional leaders nearly had a deal cobbled together for a continuing resolution to fund the federal government as of Thursday morning, but then they got hit by a tweet (ay, this is the world we live in) from President Donald Trump decrying the spending bill extension for including funding for CHIP, the children's healthcare program, instead of providing a longterm solution. And, now we're a lot closer to lurching into a federal government shutdown.

The margin for error on this was already pretty slim before Trump got involved. (Attempts to get the Democrats on board with deal sweeteners like reworking DACA and extending CHIP were either not enough of a draw to get the Dems on board or were shot down by Trump already.)

In fact, going in, the continuing resolution was already looking like it would (barely) get through the Senate and the House, and now that Trump has stepped in, it's looking increasingly likely that there will actually be a shutdown of the federal government, the first in four years. If that sounds like fun to you, you've either been watching too much of The West Wing or you've already forgotten what it was like when the government last closed its doors for 16 days after running out of money. (Congress was scrapping over funding the Affordable Care Act back then. Simpler times.)

Anyway, this time around, if a deal is not struck, the federal government will officially run out of spending money at midnight Friday. We've already sustained one hit in the wrangling over this stopgap measure to avoid the shutdown—the disaster-aid package for those dealing with Harvey and other natural disasters has been set aside as Congress struggles to find a funding agreement that can garner enough support to get approved. 

This won't have a huge impact on Houston initially, but if the shutdown drags out—and considering the GOP margin for controlling the Senate is slim, at 51 to 49, and that this fight is over DACA and a children's healthcare program, it's fair to bet that there will be one hell of a fight before a deal is struck—that's when we'll start feeling the effects. 

A shutdown automatically requires all "nonessential" federal employees to go home and stay there for the duration. Back in 1981, the dawn of shutdowns over political squabbles, the Office of Management and Budget declared that shutdowns did not include any government activities "authorized by law," or that "protect life and property" or are deemed "necessary to begin phasing out of other activities." So not everyone gets sent home, but at the height of the 2013 shutdown, 850,000 of the federal government's more than 2 million civil employees were furloughed.

And that's where things could get interesting for Houston. Initially, the biggest impact we're likely to see is from the Johnson Space Center. It will clear out, and NASA employees (there are about 3,000 of them) will be sent home and furloughed for the duration. In other words, you may see a whole bunch of very smart people wandering around unsure of what to do with themselves since they won't be allowed to work on the great questions like going back to the moon and how we can actually get to Mars. 

But that's just the first wave. If the shutdown really drags out, you won't be able to renew your passport, which is only a problem if, say, your passport has expired and you have a trip coming up. If that's the case, you might want to go check that out. The National Park Service will also close down, so if you're planning on finally making that pilgrimage to Yosemite, keep a sharp eye on what's going on. 

While this won't hit Houston where it matters most—FEMA aid will continue, for instance—shutdowns do affect government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service. That may not sound like a bad thing, but it is if you have any tax questions. 

So yeah, the fallout from the shutdown will mostly lead to annoyances more than real problems here in Houston. But don't forget that there will be a monetary cost to this. The federal government lost more than $2 billion during the big shutdown in 1995 through 1996, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2013, the government shutdown cost the feds $2 billion in lost worker productivity alone, and that's not even counting what was lost in backpay owed to furloughed workers and the late fees on payments that the government missed. On top of that, the trickle-down cost to the economy was more than $75 million per day in 2013. A shutdown may sound like fun and games, but it's all a good time until the entire country starts losing billions of dollars. 

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