UPDATE: Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed a temporary spending bill to keep federal government agencies open through Nov. 17. The original story appears as published below:
Some federal government agencies and programs rely on annual funding appropriations passed by Congress. Shutdowns happen when Congress doesn’t approve funding legislation, which prevents the government from spending the money it needs to remain open.
If Congress enacts some, but not all, of 12 annual appropriations bills, this is known as a partial government shutdown.
With a potential government shutdown on the horizon, several VERIFY readers have asked whether a government shutdown would stop or delay their Social Security payments.
Would a government shutdown stop or delay Social Security payments?
- Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB)
- Social Security Administration (SSA)
- U.S. Treasury Department
- Shai Akabas, executive director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center
- David Wessel, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy
No, a government shutdown would not stop or delay Social Security payments.
WHAT WE FOUND
Our sources say Social Security recipients, including people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, would still get their checks in the event of a government shutdown.
Social Security benefits are among those that would continue to be paid during a government shutdown because they are “authorized by Congress in laws that do not need annual approval,” according to David Wessel, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
Funding for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare falls under a category called “mandatory spending” rather than “discretionary” spending, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Mandatory spending programs continue to function during a government shutdown, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) explains.
Mandatory spending is already authorized for multiple years or permanently, while discretionary spending must be appropriated every year, according to the CRFB. The Social Security Act requires the government to provide payments to the program’s beneficiaries, the Treasury Department says.
Social Security is primarily financed through a dedicated payroll tax and any extra income the taxes generate go into trust funds reserved for future Social Security payments, the Social Security Administration (SSA) explains. Those funds are not expected to be depleted until 2033.
While Social Security would still make benefit payments on time, a government shutdown could cause issues for other aspects of the program.
"We know from past government shutdowns that the federal government will be able to send out Social Security benefit payments, even if it is partially shut down," said Shai Akabas, executive director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "What is impacted in Social Security is the ability of new beneficiaries to apply for benefits because some of the employees who would be handling that will be furloughed for that period of time and not working."
That means the program may be unable to issue any new Social Security cards and verify applicants' eligibility for benefits, according to the CRFB.
Other programs and services are impacted during a government shutdown, too. Wessel explains that many federal employees are told not to report for work, though a 2019 law ensures they will be paid retroactively when the shutdown ends.
Government employees who provide essential services, such as air traffic control and law enforcement, continue to work without pay until Congress takes action to end the shutdown, according to Wessel.
Shutdowns can also lead to delays in processing applications for passports, small business loans or government benefits, fewer food safety inspections, and shuttered visitor centers and bathrooms at national parks, he said.
In December 2018, a dispute over border wall funding led to the most recent partial government shutdown that lasted 35 days.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.