Some of the claims being made about what happens to the federal government when there is a funding lapse are almost hysterical – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) even claimed that a shutdown would be “as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War.” Here are answers to some basic questions about a shutdown.

Q: Is such a funding lapse unusual?

A: No, such a lapse in funding would be neither unusual nor catastrophic. There have been 17 funding gaps just since 1977 ranging in duration from one to 21 days. Under applicable federal law, operations and services would continue for those essential for “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” as well as those programs funded through multiyear or permanent appropriations.

Q: What actually happens during a government “shutdown?”

A: The truth from the experience of prior shutdowns, applicable federal laws, Justice Department legal opinions, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directives, is that crucial government services and benefits would continue without interruption. In fact, as the Justice Department said in a legal opinion in 1995, “the federal government will not be truly ‘shut down’…because Congress has itself provided that some activities of Government should continue.” Any claims that not passing a continuing resolution (CR) will result in a “shutting down” of the government “is an entirely inaccurate description,” according to the Justice Department.

Q: Would retirees and veterans get their benefit checks?

A: Yes, mandatory government payments such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits would continue to be paid. During a prior government shutdown in 1995, 80 percent of Social Security Administration employees kept working because they were considered “essential” to making benefit payments.

Q: Would national security be hurt by a shutdown?

A: No, national security, including the conduct of foreign relations by the President, is considered an essential function that would continue.

Q: Would food and drug safety be imperiled by a shutdown?

A: No, the federal government would continue to conduct testing and inspection of food, drugs, and hazardous materials, because these are considered essential for the safety of Americans.

Q: Would we still be able to travel?

A: Yes, the government has said during prior shutdowns that the air traffic control system and other transportation safety operations are essential to the safety of the country and would continue to operate. So air traffic controllers would keep directing air traffic at airports around the country, and you would continue to be searched by agents of the TSA when you board a flight.

Q. What would a shutdown mean for implementation of Obamacare?

A. Some parts of Obamacare are funded with multiyear appropriations and would not be affected by a lapse in current funding. Other parts are not. While the Administration may have some funding available to continue to implement those parts of Obamacare, it would not be able to legally implement all of the many different parts of the law. There is no doubt, however, that the President is likely to assert that all of the different parts of the law are “essential” and should continue to operate even without funding.

Q: What happens to federal law enforcement activities?

A: During a shutdown, all federal law enforcement and border control functions continue to operate. So the FBI would continue to make arrests and conduct criminal investigations. The U.S. Border Patrol would continue to patrol the American borders. The federal Bureau of Prisons stays open, and convicted criminals are not released.

Q: Would there be any problems with the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department’s supervision of our financial system during a shutdown?

A: No, all activities essential to preserving the money and banking system of the U.S., including borrowing and tax collection, would continue. So the IRS would keep on collecting the tax revenues that help pay for the operation of the federal government.

Q: What if there is a natural disaster like a hurricane during a government shutdown?

A: Emergency and disaster assistance are considered essential to protecting life and property, so federal disaster assistance continues during a government shutdown.

Q: Would many federal employees be furloughed?

A: Federal employees who are not considered essential would be furloughed; based on prior funding lapses, this is a relatively small number of employees in comparison to the entire federal workforce. When President Bill Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution in November 1995 in a dispute with the House of Representatives over a balanced budget and welfare reform, only about 800,000 out of a total of almost 4.5 million federal employees were furloughed. In a second funding gap from December 1995 to January 1996, only about 300,000 employees were furloughed. So the vast majority of federal workers will keep right on working.

Find more detailed information about a government shutdown here.