From burials to zoos to libraries, US braces for shutdown

Posted at 04/07/11 10:31 AM

WASHINGTON - Millions of Americans braced Thursday for a government shutdown that could impact their lives starting this weekend, unless Republicans and Democrats reach a budget deal.

In many cities, including the US capital, residents would not be able to register vehicles or renew driver's licenses because motor vehicle departments around the country will shut down when the federal government does.

That could happen at midnight on Friday, after which building permits will not be issued because the department of public works will be closed, and public libraries would remain shuttered, making it impossible to check out books.

Rubbish would not be collected and streets would not be swept in Washington during a shutdown, Mayor Vincent Gray told a news conference.

Tom Tarantino, of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, said on the military.com website that a shutdown would halt military burials because the department in charge of internments at the Veterans Affairs Administration would be forced to close.

Americans who decide to head overseas to avoid all the headaches had better already have a passport, because processing of travel documents will stop if the government closes.

During the last shutdown, in the 1990s, some 200,000 passport applications were not processed, according to the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.

The tentacles of the shutdown would even reach overseas, affecting visa services for foreigners seeking to visit the United States, the State Department said.

Events scheduled this weekend in South Carolina to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War could be called off if lawmakers in Washington fail to agree on how much to rein in spending.

Commemorative events are due to be held at Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861.

But that national monument is run by the National Park Service, and "in the unfortunate event of a shutdown, the national park system will be closed," parks spokesman David Barna said in a statement.

Government grinding to a halt in Washington would be disastrous for businesses some 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away in Estes Park, Colorado, a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

"Tourism is our only industry. We rely heavily on visitation to the national park to bring people here," Suzy Blackhurst, communications manager at the Estes Park Convention and Visitors Bureau, told AFP.

The ones who would bear the brunt of a shutdown are the 4.4 million Americans who work for the federal government.

Among them, only those considered essential workers, such as airport security officials, air traffic controllers, prison guards, police and firemen would be allowed to continue to work.

Even they may not get paid until the federal government is up and running.

"Federal agencies do not have the authority to pay their employees during a shutdown," the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said Tuesday.

Government workers whose services are deemed essential "will receive pay for hours worked when the Congress passes and the president signs" either new stop-gap funding or a fully fledged budget for the rest of the year, OPM said.

Non-essential personnel are banned from working during a shutdown, even as volunteers.

Around 800,000 federal workers were furloughed during a five-day shutdown in November 1995, and 760,000 were put on leave without pay in a second shutdown a few weeks later.

That time, the government stayed closed for three weeks -- a long time to go without a paycheck.

During those weeks, part of the upscale neighborhood near Washington's National Zoo became a stinker of a place to live as dung from elephants, hippos and other animals piled up in the car park, the Washington Post reported.

Although residents of the Woodley Park neighborhood would probably argue the point, the government did not consider transporting the droppings to a special composting greenhouse to be an essential service during that prolonged shutdown at the turn of the year in 1995-96.

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, the federal agency that runs the zoo and many Washington museums, wouldn't say whether a similar situation could occur today.

But she did say Smithsonian museums and the zoo would have to close to the public if the government shuts down "because federal employees are not permitted to work and most of our employees are federal."

Zoo veterinarians would continue to work, and curators and security guards would still be on hand at Washington's museums, St. Thomas said.

"But there will be no tourists there, and it's sad to think of the zoo and the museums empty," she said.