Are you hoping to get a new passport next week? Not even the State Department knows if you can.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said his department is “ready” if the government shutters Friday at midnight, but his own employees have no clue what will happen, what it might mean for them — and therefore what that means for you.
In an email sent to State Department employees Friday morning, acting Director General William Todd said that “a number of government activities would cease due to a lack of appropriated funding, and that a number of employees would be temporarily furloughed,” if a government shutdown were to occur. But Todd didn’t specify which activities would stop, or which employees should stay home next week.
Some State Department workers are at a loss. “This is a total shit show,” an official who works in the department told me on Friday.
“We are expected to still show up for work on Monday and figure it out from there,” another State Department official told me on Thursday.
All three employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not received authorization to discuss the department’s plans in case of a government shutdown.
These accounts correlate with State’s official statements. Heather Nauert, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters on Thursday that the department had yet to make any decisions about which services it could provide during a shutdown but that “we will be prepared for all contingencies.”
So let’s be clear about what all of this means: On the day the government could potentially shutter its doors for an unknown period of time, the State Department has yet to convey any clear plan about how it will function.
That means we don’t yet know if US citizens can apply for new passports or visas, or if Americans who are in trouble abroad can seek emergency help from their local US embassy.
The State Department has been more prepared for past government shutdowns
This isn’t the first time the department that handles US foreign policy has faced a shutdown.
In 2011, the Obama administration sent out guidance about what the State Department could do in case the government closed. Americans could still receive help from US embassies in case of an emergency, such as a vital medical procedure or assistance getting out of jail. But the department wouldn’t be able to carry out certain functions, including issuing new passports. None of that came to pass, though, since a last-minute budget deal avoided a shutdown.
The government did close for two weeks in 2013, but the State Department didn’t have to make many changes. Only 340 of its employees couldn’t work, compared to 400,000 furloughed Defense Department workers. The State Department still had to scale back some non-essential activities, however, and delay some of its security assistance payments to countries like Israel.
This time, though, things are different. A State Department official told me that “the Department is updating its plans for executing an orderly shutdown of activities, and deciding which, if any, activities will continue.” So it does look like the department is scrambling to get ready in time.
That seems like too little, too late at this point.