Key services at West Virginia's New River Gorge National Park and Preserve like visitors centers and trash pick-up will stop during a government shut down. Photo courtesy the National Parks Service.

Update (Oct. 2, 2023): In a surprising last-minute move, Congress passed a bipartisan temporary funding agreement on Saturday that will keep the government open until mid-November. The deal was largely spurred by an unexpected reversal in the House, which had seemed unlikely to reach an agreement before the Sunday deadline. 

The deal, which was signed by President Joe Biden hours before the shutdown was supposed to start, funds the government for 45 days, or until November 17. Before then, Congress will need to agree to a long-term funding deal to cover the current fiscal year, or another stop-gap measure. If it is unable to reach a deal by the new deadline, the government would shut down.

It’s looking more and more like the U.S. government will shut down over the weekend, reducing government services in West Virginia and furloughing many federal workers.

Right now, all eyes are on Congress. House Republicans have rejected a Senate proposal to keep the government open while struggling to agree on another proposal that will get enough support to become law, according to the Associated Press. 

Unless something changes, the government will run out of funding and officially shut down at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1. The lapse in money means the federal government must scale back operations significantly, a shift that will have an almost immediate effect on federal workers across the country and disrupt several services within states. 

West Virginia is no exception. Depending on how long it lasts, the shutdown could drastically reduce or completely halt Head Start programs for young children, limit food assistance programs for low-income mothers and the elderly, and hurt the wallets of thousands of federal employees who live and work in the Mountain State. 

Here’s what you need to know about the government shutdown and how it could affect West Virginia in the coming days. 

What is a government shutdown? 

Each year, Congress passes 12 appropriations bills that determine how much money federal agencies have to spend for the upcoming year. Congress has until the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) to pass these bills and get the president’s signature on them.

If the bills aren’t passed and signed by the Sept. 30 deadline, the government then enters a “shutdown”: a period where the majority of federal agencies drastically limit, and in some cases completely stop, operations until they receive funding. If some appropriation bills pass before the deadline, the government enters a “partial shutdown” where some agencies are funded and others are not. To avoid a shutdown, lawmakers either reach a deal to fund the government for the year or must pass what is called a “continuing resolution,” or CR, a temporary measure that extends current funding levels for a brief period of time. 

The government has shut down several times, including three times in the past decade (2013, early 2018, and late 2018-early 2019). The last government shutdown went from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019, lasting 35 days – the longest in U.S. history.

Does the shutdown close anything in West Virginia? 

Yes. Any West Virginia-based offices of federal agencies that are not deemed “essential” will be closed. In late 2018, for example, the partial government shutdown completely closed the Coast Guard’s Vessel Documentation Center in Falling Waters and the Operations Systems Center in Parkersburg as well as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s training facility in Harper’s Ferry. 

Coast Guard’s Vessel Documentation Center in Falling Waters. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

But other federal work in the state will continue. Bureau of Prisons facilities will continue to operate, as will many FBI offices in the state. West Virginia’s four Veterans Affairs medical centers will also remain open, as will airports, and the Postal Service will continue to operate normally. People will technically be able to use certain areas of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, but federal officials are encouraging people to stay away from national parks during the shutdown. Some key maintenance services, like trash collection and restroom cleaning, will not be provided and visitors centers will close.

Regular inspections of underground and surface coal mines will continue, but fine collection, safety training and other programs of the Mine Safety and Health Administration will stop.

TSA, National Guard, prison employees: How does the shutdown affect federal employees? 

More than 16,000 federal employees work at West Virginia’s more than two dozen federal facilities, and a large number of them are concentrated in the Eastern Panhandle. During a government shutdown, many of these workers will be furloughed and won’t be paid. Any workers deemed essential will keep working, but won’t be paid until the shutdown is over. In 2019, Congress passed the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which secures back pay and accrued leave for workers who were furloughed during a shutdown. 

Hazelton FCI in Preston County where employees would work without pay during a shutdown. Photo courtesy Bureau of Prisons

Essential workers include air traffic controllers, TSA workers, the West Virginia National Guard, and people working at federal prisons. The longer a shutdown goes, the worse it will be for employees going an extended period without pay. 

The White House keeps a list of contingency plans for each federal agency that describes what it would do during a shutdown, including who will be furloughed and who will have to work without pay. These plans are still being updated as the shutdown approaches. 

Will a government shutdown affect social security and other social services?

Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare will continue to provide benefits to more than 400,000 West Virginians because they have separate, permanent funding sources. But these programs would likely need to stop accepting new applications during a shutdown, and could also face customer service delays due to furloughed workers, potentially affecting thousands of people a day. 

Assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and some government-supported school services like Head Start and free school lunch have enough funding to keep operating for a short time, but could run out of money after a few weeks. 

“If it’s a short shutdown, I think our programs are equipped to handle that and have plans in place for that, should it happen,” Lori Milam, executive director of West Virginia Head Start, recently told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “However, if it’s any amount of a long period, they would lose access very quickly. It would hurt our staff, which we’re struggling to hire and keep, as it is right now.”

Other programs, like the WIC program for mothers and their young children, which currently provides nutrition assistance to 86% of babies born in the state, are expected to run out of money within days, putting thousands of vulnerable West Virginians at risk. 

Manchin, Mooney, Miller and Capito: What are West Virginia politicians saying?

As the likelihood of a shutdown has increased, West Virginia’s congressional representatives have had varying responses to the looming crisis. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R- W.Va) has been one of the more vocal legislators, recently telling constituents in Charleston that she was “pessimistic” about the odds of avoiding a shutdown. She has also criticized the fact that a deal hasn’t been reached. 

“A government shutdown is a road to nowhere,” Capito told reporters on Thursday. “It’s a misery march. It’s a disservice to the American people.” 

Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) has also weighed in, saying that the government needs to cut its long-term spending while arguing that a shutdown should be avoided if at all possible. 

“No, I don’t think we’re going to shut down the government. I would not be for shutting down the government,” Mooney told MetroNews’ Talkline earlier this week. 

In an emailed statement, Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.), criticized government spending. 

“Republicans are working around the clock to pass funding bills that are fiscally responsible and work for the American people,” Miller said. “Shutting down the government is not the solution, and I am working with my colleagues to keep the government open so we can fund our military, save taxpayers money, and pass meaningful legislation.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) argued that the shutdown would be painful for the country. 

 “A shutdown should never be on the table because it’s the average American out there trying to make it day to day that gets hurt the worst,“ Manchin said in a statement provided to Mountain State Spotlight. “Three months ago, we made a deal, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate. We cannot have the extremes derail this deal. We have to come together again and pass bipartisan appropriations bills based on the spending levels set in the agreement. It’s that simple.” 

What happens if the shutdown is longer than a few days? 

It’s hard to say exactly what will happen next, and some agencies have said that they have enough funding to operate until mid-October or even early November. But if the shutdown lasts for an extended period of time, federal employees will have to wait weeks for their next paycheck and it becomes more likely that more social services begin to run out of money, straining an already overextended safety net even further.

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.