Everything You Need To Know About A Government Shutdown

An agency-by-agency look at which parts of the federal bureaucracy are exempt from closure

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Update, Sept. 27, 2013: The Justice Department released an updated version of its contingency plan. The infographic has been updated accordingly.

Even if lawmakers fail to head off a government shutdown by 11:59 p.m. this coming Monday, much of the government will continue to function as normal: the mail will still arrive, troops will remain at their posts, and the fathead minnows that the EPA is raising will not be loosed upon the world.

Both federal law and subsequent legal opinions carve out ample exceptions to the across-the-board furloughs that occur when budget authority expires, such as the protection of life and property. Last week, the Obama administration requested that federal agencies update their list of employees and programs that they consider exempt from shutdown orders in advance of a potential lapse.

Those plans are still in the works, according to a statement from Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Emily Cain. But we do have 2011 versions of the shutdown contingency plans, which the administration requested last time Congress was playing shutdown brinkmanship. One can safely assume that most agency priorities have not significantly changed: in many cases the spending bill that is set to expire Monday is the same one that nearly expired two years ago.

The EPA stated in 2011 that it  plans to retain personnel to “protect the physical integrity of the test organisms,” like the fathead minnow, which it uses in toxicity studies. The Department of the Interior will continue to operate the Hoover Dam, though national parks will close. The IRS will keep up its undercover operations, and the Commerce Department will continue to predict the weather.

Even if a shutdown is averted, the contingency plans offer an intimate and often surprising picture of what the agencies actually do—like the fact that the Commerce Department is in the meteorology business, or that the Pentagon has something called “bachelor officer quarters” (emergency repairs for which will proceed unmolested in the event of a shutdown).

The following feature lists which programs and functions will close or remain open in seven major agencies, based on the 2011 contingency plans. It is far from a comprehensive list, as some agencies were much more diligent than others in following instructions on how to write their reports. Some were quite detailed about what would not remain open—often with more than a touch of bitterness—while others only specified what would stay open and left the rest to the imagination.