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Administration officials now live in fear of a 19th-century law that could get them fired, penalized or even imprisoned if they make the wrong choices while the government is shut down.
The law is the Antideficiency Act, passed by Congress in 1870 (and amended several times), which prohibits the government from incurring any monetary obligation for which the Congress has not appropriated funds.
In shutting down the government, most memos cite the law as the reason. The Government Accountability Office says employees who violate the Antideficiency Act may be subject to disciplinary action, suspension and even "fines, imprisonment, or both."
CNBC has learned that in several executive branch departments, high-level staff members review individual decisions about what government activities to allow for fear of running afoul of the Antideficiency Act. One White House official said he has advised his employees not to check their email or cellphones. Under the act, even volunteering for government service is expressly prohibited.
In a memo to his department employees today, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew cited the law as the reason for reduced staffing.
"For the duration of this impasse, as required by the Antideficiency Act and directed by OMB, the Department will be required to operate with only the minimal staffing level necessary to execute only certain legally exempted activities," Lew wrote.