The truth is most Americans will not feel the impact of a shutdown, at least in the near term, because the government performs so many services that are considered essential - and therefore exempt from closure. So, for example, mail will be delivered and Social Security checks will be sent out and the air traffic control system will be operating (as will airport security). The government will continue to inspect meat-packing plants and patrol the borders and guard the prisons and provide disaster assistance and oversee the banking system and operate the power grid. The "non-essential" list is still substantial - clinical research comes to a halt, as do federal housing vouchers and passport applications. Federal parks and museums will be closed, along with most of the regulatory agencies (the Washington Post has a rundown). But with the exception of parks and museums, the non-essential stuff probably won't be noticed - and without a public outcry, you have to wonder whether Republicans will be coaxed into making a deal any time soon. By the way, NPR's Scott Horsley has a good piece on the history of these shutdowns. It all started during the Carter administration when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti concluded in a legal opinion that government work cannot go on until Congress agrees to pay for it.
"They used an obscure statute to say that if any work continued in an agency where there wasn't money, the employees were behaving like illegal volunteers," says Tiefer. "So they not only could shut off the lights and leave, they were obliged to shut off the lights and leave." Civiletti later issued a second opinion with a less strict interpretation -- allowing essential government services to continue in the absence of a spending bill. But even with that exception, the stakes of a legislative standoff had been raised -- which could be why lawmakers suddenly got serious about making deals. In the years leading up to Civiletti's opinion, budget standoffs lasting a week or more were commonplace. But after the opinion, no standoff lasted more than three days until the epic government shutdowns of 1995.