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What a government shutdown would mean for the U.S. military — and national security

U.S. Army soldiers march in a parade as part of the 75th South Korea Armed Forces Day ceremony in Seoul, South Korea on Tuesday.
Ahn Young-joon
U.S. Army soldiers march in a parade as part of the 75th South Korea Armed Forces Day ceremony in Seoul, South Korea on Tuesday.

Updated September 27, 2023 at 2:06 PM ET

The federal government will shut down on October 1 if Congress doesn't pass funding legislation for the next fiscal year before then — which is looking increasingly likely.

That raises plenty of questions. Among them: What happens to the military?

Service members will continue to report for duty, though they will not get paid during a shutdown. And many of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who work for the Department of Defense will likely be furloughed, says White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.

"And they do vital, critical work on a daily basis to keep the department going," Kirby told Morning Edition.

Separately, the Department of Defense says post and base services would be closed or limited, while elective surgeries and procedures in its medical and dental facilities would have to be postponed. Commissaries would remain open overseas but close in the U.S.

And certain Pentagon activities, like operational planning and military recruitment, will be paused.

Defense officials warned earlier this week that a shutdown would strategically "play into the hands of U.S. competitors" because it would cost time as well as money. Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh called it "the worst thing that could happen."

"The U.S. military's going to continue to do its job and protect our national security interests, and of our allies and partners as well," she said, adding that a shutdown would make those efforts harder. "When you don't have your full operating capacity to be able to help with the mission, to be able to conduct an exercise or training, of course, that gets to our national security and readiness."

Kirby agrees that a prolonged shutdown could harm national security, especially when it comes to delayed management of DOD contracts for things like maintenance, logistics and procurement.

He says the White House is working to make sure employees understand what a shutdown could mean for them and to make plans in case they are affected. It's also urging Congress to do its job. Though, Kirby notes, the issue is really between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the small group of hardline House Republicans demanding steep budget cuts.

It's not the only recent example of members of Congress holding up military proceedings.

Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville is blocking more than 300 military promotions and appointments over his objection to the Pentagon's abortion policy. Kirby says the freezing of those nominations is "certainly not helping matters."

"Imagine you're one of these officers, that you can't move on to your next duty assignment," he explained. "You're paying out of pocket now for expenses that you thought you'd be able to cover because you were moving to the next assignment and now you might not get a paycheck. So it's absolutely going to, I think, just make the morale and the welfare for our families and for our people even that much worse."

Congress could act to guarantee military pay

Congress made sure active-duty military and reservists still got paid during the last shutdown in 2018-2019, with the notable exception of one branch: U.S. Coast Guard members worked without pay. Congress also guaranteed military pay during the shutdowns of 2013 and 1995-1996.

That's because the full-year Defense appropriations bill had already become law, in two of those cases, or because Congress passed specific legislation in 2013 preemptively guaranteeing military pay, Roll Call explains.

It could theoretically do that again now, in the dwindling days before the shutdown deadline. And some lawmakers are trying.

Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., a former Navy helicopter pilot, introduced legislation in the House last week that would ensure military members get paid in the event of a shutdown. And more than a dozen Republican senators introduced a similar bill on Tuesday.

"Our servicemembers shouldn't suffer because of Washington's dysfunction," Kiggans said. "At a time where inflation and interest rates continue to hurt our military families, we must continue to get our economy back on track by cutting wasteful spending but we must also ensure our military gets a paycheck."

One in three military families have less than $3,000 in savings, Kathy Roth-Douquet, the founder and CEO of nonprofit Blue Star Families, said in a statement.

Kirby says a lack of pay will have a "very, very significant effect" on servicemembers and their families.

"Look, you don't join the military to get rich. Certainly the pay is good. But they need those paychecks," he added. "They've got rent. They've got mortgages. They've got groceries. And so they'll still show up to do the work of the country and do the nation's bidding. But they won't get paid."

Service members will get back pay once the government is funded again. And while paychecks go out every two weeks, Kirby says even a short shutdown could result in processing delays once it reopens.

Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former Pentagon press secretary, has experienced that paycheck backlog for himself. And he says those delays don't just impact members' checkbooks, but their welfare and morale too.

"We like to say that, at least in the Navy, you recruit a sailor, but you retain — you keep — a family," he added. "And those families will be helping make those decisions about whether they want to keep serving with this kind of disruption."

The broadcast interview was produced by Taylor Haney.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 28, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story has been updated to reflect that Coast Guard members did not get paid during the 2018-2019 government shutdown.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.