News & Politics

Government Shutdown 2011: How Would It Impact Washington?

Will your garbage pile up in the street? Do you have to go to work?

Photograph by Sam Kittner

The federal government is hovering on the brink of a shutdown, which has long-range implications for the economy and our national debt. But in the short term, what does a shutdown mean for those of us who live, work, and play in Washington?

Many questions remain about what might actually happen if Congress can’t come up with a budget compromise by the end of Friday, but most essential services will remain in place. Still, we can’t help but wonder what Saturday morning will look like in Washington, the first day when the shutdown would go into effect.

So we’ve compiled a list of what services will certainly continue, what will definitely shut down, and what may not be clear until the last moment:


  • Law enforcement: Public safety isn’t in danger, although expect delays in the processing of applications for firearms, alcohol, tobacco, and explosives permits. The FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Border Patrol will all stay open.
  • Fire departments: Will all stay open.
  • Schools: Public schools will stay open, but the University of the District of Columbia will likely close.
  • Air traffic: Air-traffic controllers will remain on the job, and the SA will continue to screen travelers.
  • Courts: Federal and DC courts, which are federally funded, but count as “essential,” will stay open. So yes, that means you do have to show up for jury duty.
  • Mail: the U.S. Postal Service will continue to deliver mail. And if you plan to file your income taxes by mail, it still must have an April 18 postmark. Some IRS observers have noted, though, that workers might not be in place to send out refunds, according to the Washington Post. Here’s hoping you filed that return already.
  • Transportation: Metrorail and Metrobuses will keep running, but a drop in ridership could really hurt revenues for the already-struggling WMATA. Greater Greater Washington predicts that with as much as a 20-percent drop in riders, Metro could lose about $250,000 a day—money it can’t afford to lose. All other regional bus service will continue as well. Amtrak will also continue run.
  • Some federal workers: “Essential” federal employees, particularly those involved in the safety of the public and in protecting personal property, will continue to work. In addition, members of Congress, the President, presidential appointees, some legislative branch appointees, and some “excepted” federal employees will still work. House Speaker John Boehner told Good Morning America Thursday that he thinks Congress shouldn’t be paid during the shutdown. And Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he’d voluntarily return his pay.
  • Social Security: Checks will still be sent out.
  • Local businesses: Bars and restaurants will seek to benefit from all those workers with nowhere to go, especially on Capitol Hill. Joe Englert, who owns Capitol Lounge, told the Post that he expects to be inundated with staffers. “They’re not going to roam very far. They’re not going to go home and they’re not going to go to Vail.”


  • Federal agencies: According to the Congressional Research Service, in the last shutdown in 1995 to 1996, some 284,000 employees were furloughed and another 475,000 worked without pay. President Barack Obama has said that this time, federal workers will not be allowed to work for free. For a little more clarity on a murky question, the Office of Personnel Management has put out a nifty guide.
  • DC Public Library: DC's libraries would close, but other regional library systems will most likely stay open. Arlington Public Library is even encouraging federal workers to come to the library next week if they have no place to go.
  • DC Department of Motor Vehicles: No in-person road tests, renewal, or registration services.
  • Federal museums: Including the Smithsonian museums, the National Archives, the National Zoo, and the National Gallery of Art.
  • Federal monuments: Including the Washington Monument and national parks.
  • Trash: If you live in the District, you wouldn’t have your trash or recycling picked up next week. But trash removal could resume after a week or so in the interests of public health. Other jurisdictions shouldn't see a disruption in their trash removal.


  • The Cherry Blossom Festival Parade: UPDATE Friday, 10 AM: Festival organizers tell Washingtonian that the parade will go on as planned even if there is a shutdown. More here. The Post is quoting organizers of the popular event who say they’re looking for a backup plan for the 13 marching bands, celebrities, balloons, and other pink fun. The Web site of the National Cherry Blossom Festival says that permits for marching in the parade will not be honored in a shutdown, but at the moment, the parade is still scheduled for Saturday.
  • All other federal workers: Many workers are still unclear on just how important their work is considered. John Gage, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told National Public Radio that many government employees still don’t know whether their jobs counted as “essential.” “Employees are apparently going to be told to report to work Monday. Then they’ll be released and those who are nonessential, nonexempt will be released and the other ones will be told to stay.” Those who are sent home will reportedly have to turn in their government-issued BlackBerrys, which in this town, could end up being the most traumatic effect of the shutdown of all.
  • Parking tickets: Most ticket-writing will be suspended, but tickets will still be issued for dangerous parking situations such as parking in front of a fire hydrant, says a D.C. city administrator.

Did we miss anything you're still wondering about? Let us know in the comments and we'll do our best to update this post as more information becomes available. 

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Debra Bruno

Debra Bruno (, who lives in DC, writes frequently for the Washington Post and Washington Lawyer, among others.