Fewer than half the 2.1 million federal workers subject to a shutdown would be forced off the job if the Obama administration followed the path taken by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And that's not counting 600,000 Postal Service employees or 1.6 million uniformed military personnel exempt from a shutdown.
So we're talking fewer than one in four federal workers staying at home. Many federal workers get paid March 4, so it would take a two-week shutdown for them to see a delay in their paychecks.
The rules for who works and who doesn't date to the early 1980s and haven't been significantly modified since. The Obama administration hasn't issued new guidance.
The air-traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans' health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual. The Social Security Administration would not only send out benefits but would continue to take applications. The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would keep delivering the mail. Federal courts would remain open.
The cherry blossoms in Washington would bloom as usual, and visitors to the city would be able to park and see them in all their glory around the Tidal Basin.
But they wouldn't be able to take the elevator up the Washington Monument, visit museums along the National Mall or take a White House tour. National parks would be closed to visitors. The Capitol would remain open, however. The IRS wouldn't answer its taxpayer hotline — at the height of tax-filing season. Under IRS precedents, the agency would process tax returns that contain payments. But people getting refunds would have to wait.
All sides say they don't want a so-called shutdown like the two separate partial government closings in 1995-1996, when President Clinton and a then-new GOP majority in Congress were at loggerheads over the budget. Republicans took most of the blame, and the episodes gave Clinton critical momentum on his way to re-election.
There haven't been any shutdowns since then. The politics stink. But from a practical perspective, shutdowns usually aren't that big a deal. They happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each. During President Reagan's two terms, there were six shutdowns, typically of just one or two days apiece.
In 1995-96, however, shutdowns morphed into political warfare, to the dismay of Republicans who thought they could use them to drag Clinton to the negotiating table on a balanced-budget plan.
Republicans took a big political hit, but a compendium of the other hardships experienced reads like a roster of relatively minor inconveniences for most Americans: closed parks, delays in processing passport applications, 2,400 workers cleaning up toxic- waste sites being sent home, and a short delay in processing veterans' claims. A new government standard for lights and lamps was delayed.
To be sure, furloughs can be a major hardship for federal workers. Even those in essential jobs — and required to work — could see their paychecks delayed if a stalemate dragged on.
Lawmakers, however, typically provide back pay, even for employees who weren't required to work. A repeat of that could raise hackles with some in the tea party-backed House GOP freshman class. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wouldn't address whether furloughed federal workers would receive back pay if there is a shutdown this time.