A government shutdown on October 1 is looking more and more likely due to stalled negotiations in the U.S. Congress over the appropriations bills that fund government operations, including those of FEMA. In the event of a government shutdown, there is considerable uncertainty about the impact on FEMA, though ultimately most of the agency’s operations would probably continue without interruption.
Under the “Antideficiency Act,” federal agencies cannot spend or obligate any money without an appropriation (or other approval) from Congress. When Congress fails to enact the 12 annual appropriation bills, federal agencies must cease all non-essential functions until Congress acts, triggering a government shutdown.
During shutdowns, many federal employees are told not to report for work, though a 2019 law requires that these employees be paid retroactively when the shutdown ends. Government employees who provide what are deemed essential services, such as air traffic controllers and law enforcement personnel, continue to work, but are not paid until Congress takes action to end the shutdown.
According to a 2022 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), activities funded by appropriations that have neither lapsed nor been exhausted – such as unobligated carryover balances – are exempt from the government hiatus. The Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) was specifically included as an example of a part of the government whose activities would be exempted.
FEMA identified 17,621 of 22,000 total employees as exempt, and these employees therefore continued to work during a lapse in appropriations last year. In 2023, however, the agency’s funds are rapidly dwindling – as indicated by the spending restriction known as “immediate needs funding” that limits FEMA to spending disaster funds on life-saving measures. Thus, while a government shutdown may not greatly impact FEMA’s ability to assist in disaster response and recovery, the agency is already coping with impacts to many of its operations as a result of lack of funding.
The NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) of over 900 local, state, and national organizations continues to advocate for the quick passage of an emergency disaster supplemental appropriations bill to fund ongoing disaster operations and disaster recovery for current and future 2023 disasters.