When the government shutdown became inevitable, many Americans asked themselves how it would affect them. It turns out that this is also a question many people in the government were also asking themselves, but for them the wrong answers could lead to fines or imprisonment. The law in question is the Antideficiency Act, passed in 1870, which prohibits the government from racking up any debts for which Congress hasn’t expressly appropriated funds. It is the law cited in many of the memos announcing the shutdown of specific agencies and operations.
Because of this law, the punishment for which ranges from simple administrative disciplinary action to “fines imprisonment, or both.” CNBC reports “that in several executive branch departments, high-level staff members review individual decisions about what government activities to allow for fear of running afoul of” the law. This has extended to furloughed employees being advised to not even answer their cell phones or check their e-mail. Volunteering for work is prohibited because it could be “coercion.”
The reason the military, Secret Service, and other agencies still operating are legally able to do so is because the exceptions to the shutdown apply to “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” So federal courts and VA hospitals are able to remain open, but the Department of Education remains closed.
The article notes the irony that in shutting down the government over federal spending, the Congress has essentially handed the federal checkbook to the Executive branch. The guidelines to determine such emergencies and threats are very broad, and it means that it is essentially up the Office of Management and Budget to determine what does and does not get funded.
Still White House Officials are exercising extreme caution in order to not violate the Antideficiency Act, even accidentally.