The Government Shuts Down: What Is Open?

With a government shutdown in effect, the question becomes: What is closed, and what is open? Today, we discuss both in two parts. The second: What's open.

US Capitol at night

Well, somebody has to keep the lights on. We need to take artistic photos of government buildings after all.  (Image Source: Flickr: drewgstephens)

As previously mentioned, following an impasse between Republicans in Congress and the White House, the United States government shut down for the first time in 17 years because the government entered the new fiscal year without a budget.  The impasse and resulting government shutdown occurred primarily over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  While Congress drags its feet along to end this matter, it may take several days before we see a return to normal affairs.  So, the question is, what is closed right now, and what is not?  The second part of this article focuses on what is staying open or still running, at least for the time being.

The Military

The Armed Forces of the United States will remain active, and all active-duty soldiers will continue receiving their pay.  The Defense Department's shutdown plans primarily target the 800,000 civilian workers, of which half will be sent home.  Military operations both in the country and abroad, including in Afghanistan, will also remain functional, as far as anyone can see. 

Social Security/Medicare

The Social Security Administration will continue to cut checks to retirees and those on disability.  New claims will also continue to to be processed, though there may be some delays in processing them.  The only thing that will likely be affected during the government shutdown is simple matters such as replacing retirees' Social Security benefit cards.  Medicare and Medicaid, under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, will also continue to cut checks to beneficiaries.

Food Stamps

While the Department of Agriculture is mostly closed due to the government shutdown,  beneficiaries of food stamps under the Supplemental Nutritional Asisstance Program (SNAP) will still be able to receive them, at least for this month.  If the government shutdown continues, however, there is a great risk that SNAP will suspend operations as well, risking needy families.

Health Insurance Exchanges

Ironically, the reason for the impasse and government shutdown, the health insurance exchanges that were the key provision to the Affordable Care Act, not only goes into effect today, but remains completely open.  If a person wishes to order health insurance next year under the exchanges, they can do so at this time.  We will discuss a few of those exchanges later today.  But still, the opening of the health insurance exchanges kind of defeats the purpose of Republicans' efforts to delay it, does it not?

(Most of) the Justice Department

The Justice Department will undertake some cuts as part of the government shutdown.  However, those cuts are primarily concerning civil cases and not criminal cases.  The FBI, DEA, ATF, and other law enforcement agencies remain completely intact, and will maintain business as usual.

Financial Institutions

The Federal Reserve, Securities and Exchange Commission, and other financial agencies remain open today, and will continue their operations as usual.  The economy is not particularly worried at this time anyway:  The Dow Jones is up around 40 points as of press time, despite falling 1% yesterday when it became clear that the government shutdown was imminent.


The FAA manages and regulates the country's air traffic control system.  Following the government shutdown, the FAA has maintained that air traffic controllers will be working for the foreseeable future, keeping airports open and planes flying in the process.  The only time in recent history that air traffic control shut down was September 2001, where the FAA ordered all flights grounded for a period of a few days following the September 11th attacks.

Mission Control (and only Mission Control)

NASA will almost the entirety of its operations with the government shutdown, sending home 97% of its workforce.  However, the newly-arrived astronauts on the International Space Station need not worry that much: The Kennedy Space Center, location of Mission Control, will remain open during the duration of the shutdown.

Your Post Office

The Postal Service has the odd distinction of being one of the few government agencies that is self-funded, and thus completely unaffected by the government shutdown.  Therefore, the mail will continue to operate during the government shutdown period.  You can add "politics" to the list of things that will not stop your postal worker from completing their rounds.

Washington, DC

The District of Columbia itself is funded and managed, in part, by the federal government, in particular the United States Congress.  Federal law prohibits Washington, DC from spending funds on anything except essential services during a government shutdown, the only city where this is applicable.  During the 1995-1996 shutdown, the District of Columbia spent money only on police and emergency services.  Mayor Vincent Gray, however, has announced that all city services have been labeled "essential/excepted," and thus will the District's cash reserve fund to maintain the city's operations as long as possible, so the city remains open today.


That goes without saying.  More importantly, though, Senators and Representatives will continue to be paid their six-figure salaries (as the law requires) while they bicker about this impasse.  What a lovely mess we have here.