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Federal Web sites may go dark in shutdown

Any noncritical federal Web site should display a notice that it "is unavailable" during a shutdown, White House says. IRS.gov will likely stay up.

Many federal Web sites will go dark if the government shuts down tomorrow night, the White House indicated this afternoon.

A 16-page memo (PDF) to federal agencies says their Web sites may stay online only in a small number of situations, including tax collection and handling "exempted" activities such as payments and other functions that are paid for by previous annual budgets.

"The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain, or update, the agency's Web site" during a shutdown, says the memo, prepared by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

It adds: "If an agency's Web site is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the Web site is unavailable during the period of government shutdown." The IRS's Web site would likely stay online, the memo says, because tax collection is an exempted activity, "but the entire Treasury Department Web site would not."

The current temporary appropriations bill funds the federal government only through 12:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. After that, the procedures outlined in federal regulations and a federal law called the Anti-Deficiency Act kick in.

Making the matter more complicated is that many federal agencies say they have enough money in reserves or other funds to stay open at least through next week. That list, according to The Washington Post, includes the Patent and Trademark Office, the Federal Highway Administration, the Veterans Health Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Energy Department, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Federal police and Defense Department military personnel are generally exempted too.

This is something of an unprecedented situation for federal Web sites, which were in an embryonic stage during the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s.

Another option is that the Web sites will stay online, but they won't be updated.

Also affected: federal employees' BlackBerrys, cell phones, and laptops. The White House says that non-exempted "employees will be prohibited, after midnight on Friday night, from working remotely, such as from home--including by accessing agency information technology."

The Anti-Deficiency Act exempts workers dealing with "emergency situations" affecting "the safety of human life or the protection of property." That's been interpreted to mean that ongoing, regular functions of government not affecting public safety don't qualify as emergency situations.

Here's a longer list of what government services will continue, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. And here's more from the Office of Personnel Management.