What Happens to .gov in a Shutdown?


john boehner with a thought bubble saying 'sudo shutdown -h now'

A federal government shutdown looks more likely by the hour, and there’s no shortage of explainers on the web about what it all means (Wonkblog is an excellent place to start, as is our rundown from the 2011 shutdown fight). The line between “excepted” (gets to keep working) and “non-excepted” (gets shut down) is drawn on an agency-by-agency basis, and the specific determination is based on the importance of the function and how illegal ceasing to do it might be. But aside from some obvious ones–national parks would be closed; the CO2 scrubber on the International Space Station would stay plugged in–it’ll be agency leadership that makes the determinations.

But what will this mean for the federal web? OMB Memo M-13-22 explains:

Q3: What is the guidance on keeping Government websites up during a lapse in appropriations if the costs of maintaining the website are funded by a lapsed appropriations source?

A3: The same standards described above would apply. The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency’s activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency’s website during such a lapse. However, if maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of  authorized or excepted activities (e.g., maintenance of the IRS website may be necessary to allow for tax filings and tax collection, which are activities that continue during an appropriations lapse), then the website should remain operational even if its costs are funded through appropriations that have lapsed. If it becomes necessary to incur obligations to ensure that a website remains available in support of excepted activities, it should be maintained at the lowest possible level.

For example, in the IRS case above, the IRS website would remain active, but the entire Treasury Department website would not, absent a separate justification or a determination that the two sites cannot not feasibly be operated separately.

It goes on to note that agencies should post notices about their sites’ lack of availability; and to say that deadlines for applications and other processes can be extended if the law allows it. It also notes that things have to be shut down regardless of whether doing so is more expensive than keeping them online:

QS: What if the cost of shutting down a website exceeds the cost of maintaining services?

AS: The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services.

What about specific services that our community depends on? We’ve heard from a few different parts of government:

  • THOMAS and all other Library of Congress sites will go offline. This is particularly galling, since congressional action will necessarily be the source of a resolution to any shutdown. UPDATE: it looks like THOMAS will stay online after all.
  • The FEC has stated that “staff will shut down all Commission information systems, except that the Commission web site shall remain on, but static.” Since many people are obliged to file electronically, though, it’s unclear if this means that new data will be completely unavailable.
  • GPO has tweeted that FDSys will remain available, but only be updated with congressional and Federal Register information. UPDATE: The word from the Federal Register: FR’s automated nature means that it will stay up but be unable to take corrections or deal with hypothetical hosting disruptions. Naturally, you should also expect the contents of the FR to tail off as submissions from other agencies diminish.
  • The Senate Office of Public Records is expected to stay online.
  • The regulations.gov helpdesk says they expect to stay online.
  • UPDATE: All FOIA processing will be halted, according to Infoworld.

We have queries out to several other agencies and will update this post as we hear back.

Since we source data from some of the affected systems, Sunlight’s own systems are likely to feel an impact from a shutdown. THOMAS going down would necessarily diminish our ability to refresh data within the Congress API. At this time we expect Capitol Words to remain online and updated, but the exact effect of a shutdown on FDSys will determine that outcome. Open States and Party Time will remain unaffected, and the Influence Explorer API is only likely to be affected if there is a prolonged shutdown. Stay tuned to @sunlightlabs or our API status page for the latest information about our systems.

(PS: Capitol Words is a great way to see the rising and falling level of shutdown grandstanding over the last seventeen years)

Photo by Gage Skidmore. Thanks to CREW‘s Daniel Schuman for help with this post.