Government shutdowns can tend to stir up a panicky, doomsday mentality among those who do not typically follow Congressional activity. Though they are yet another unwelcome reminder of the lack of cooperation in our legislature, short shutdowns are in fact very common and are relatively harmless to the average citizen. Before you begin building a “shutdown bunker,” hoarding canned goods, or arming yourself for The Purge, familiarize yourself with the facts:
What is a government shutdown?
Far from the end of the world, a government shutdown is simply a temporary result of the gridlock in Washington with which we are all familiar. In fact, including this time, the government has shut down 19 times since 1976.
Each year, Congress is expected to pass a budget for the following fiscal year by September 30th. That being said, you may be wondering why we are still kicking the budget around in February. Congress rarely meets the September 30th deadline, and this year is no exception.
It is more than common for Congress to grant themselves one or several of what are known as continuing resolutions, or CRs. These simply appropriate temporary funding to keep the government running until Congress can reach a budget agreement. In the event that Congress fails to reach an agreement, the president has to temporarily close non-essential discretionary federal programs.
Why do they occur?
This year, in order to pass a budget, the Republican Party needed a 60-vote majority to be able to clear the filibuster in the Senate, a political procedure intended to delay or prevent legislation from reaching the floor. Though Republicans control the Senate, even assuming Republicans voted unanimously in support, they needed at least 8 Democrats to support allowing the bill to come to a vote, before factoring in Republican defectors
This year, the two biggest points of contention that led to the shutdown were spending limits and immigration. Regarding spending limits, in 2011, spending limits were enacted to restrict the size of the federal budget. This year, the Republicans wanted to raise the spending cap for military spending, but Democrats did not want to agree without an equivalent increase in non-defense spending.
Second, Democrats wanted a legislative fix for DREAMers—children brought to the United States illegally by their parents—since President Trump rescinded former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, effective March 2018. While over two dozen Republicans have also pushed for protections for DREAMers as well, a deal was not reached in time to reach
What does a shutdown mean for me and my family?
Government shutdowns mean very little for the average American, unless you had a scheduled trip to a national park or Smithsonian Museum. All essential programs such as Medicare, mail delivery, tax collection and the military remain operational. Those programs which are considered nonessential, however, are temporarily closed and their employees furloughed. These programs include NASA, the national parks, the EPA, the FDA, etc.
These programs do not typically shut down immediately; they will subsist on saved up funds until those run dry. So, the longer the shutdown, the less services will be functional. Not to worry: Shutdowns typically are short-lived, as they are not a particularly ‘good look’ for Congress.
Shutdowns are typically felt most in the economy. Shutdowns longer than two weeks tend to affect economic growth because government spending makes up approximately 18% of economic output. In the 2013 shutdown, which lasted 17 days, the US lost approximately 24 billion dollars worth of economic activity.
When will the nightmare end?
On January 22nd, the House and Senate passed a temporary spending bill which will fund the government through February 8th. Stay tuned to find out whether the government will shut down again, or whether compromise will be the name of the game.
Keenan White is a junior studying political science with minors in history and Constitutional Studies. To participate in some spirited free speech, you can email her at email@example.com.