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What Happens During a Government Shutdown?

Welcome to another pivotal moment for the United States! This time we are deciding whether or not to shut down the government. What’s really going on here? You may have heard in the news recently that Senator Joe Machin of West Virginia is blocking a budget bill that would keep the Federal Government going. Senator Machin, a Democrat, is blocking the bill because it doesn't provide enough healthcare for his constituents; miners from West Virginia. The bill provides only four more months of healthcare for retired miners and their spouses, and Machin wants to extend that to a full year. The bill also contains language that would make it easier for President-Elect Donald Trump to complete the confirmation of General James Mattis as the Defense Secretary. Interestingly, these are the same West Virginia constituents that voted for Donald Trump that are now being championed by Senator Machin, and Republicans are currently disputing the bill.

So how does a government shutdown work and what does it mean for you? Well, the answer to that question is a little complex so here we go.

There have been 12 previous government shutdowns, eight of which were under President Reagan, so this isn’t something new. The last shutdown the United States had took place in October of 2013 in response to the legislative branch’s inability to come to agreement on an appropriations bill that would have set the budget for 2014.

During a shutdown, non-essential government functions are put on hold. No other country has government shutdowns the way that the United States does because in other parts of the world, a government shutdown could create a power vacuum or could have a destabilizing effect on the current government. Another factor is that other countries don't vote on debt limits in the same way the US does.

During the 2013 Government Shutdown, only essential staff were retained. This meant that 800,000 public sector workers were sent home. For context though, at the time there were 2,100,000 public sector employees at the time. Those that are sent home are not paid and are not guaranteed pay for the time they are sent home. There are many parts of the government that stay on though. Police, Emergency Services, and other law enforcement stay on and are paid. Here is the full list that stay on:

  • Immigration Services
  • Nuclear Safety Officials
  • Dam and Power Line Operators
  • Air Traffic Control and Airport Security
  • On-Duty Military and essential civilian Military Support

The less fundamental parts of government are shutdown though. Interestingly, Washington DC will loss trash collection service during a government shutdown because since it is a Federal District, Congress must approve spending for them. Schools and public transit still remain functional though. National parks across the country do shut down though. This includes the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the National Zoo. Government employees that work at these locations are only allowed to return to work if they “protect the Life and Property” of these establishments. Vacationers that are camping within National Parks have 48 hours to vacate the premises and day trippers are turned away immediately. Here is the list of services that are shutdown:

  • Passport applications are not processed
  • Audits are stopped
  • The IRS is not available to answer tax-related questions
  • Benefits for pensioners and military veterans are delayed
  • Permits for guns are delayed or not processed
  • Small Business Association loans are not processed
  • The Center for Disease Control is shut down and is unable to respond to outbreaks

Before 2013, the previous government shutdown lasted for six days during the Clinton Administration. It happened because Newt Gingrich led an opposition to the executive branch in trying to support the Republican party. Essentially, the White House and the Congress couldn’t come together on a budget for the coming fiscal year (the same situation in 2013). Republicans believed that the American people would blame the Democrats for this, but the plan backfired. President Clinton released a memo that described the costs of the Government Shutdown. This was partially done to make the Republicans look bad, so take it with a grain of salt, but here’s the list:

  • The Treasury Department reported $400 million in lost revenue from a closed IRS enforcement division
  • 400,000 participants were delayed in enrolling for Social Security
  • Medicare claims from 112,000 applicants were not processed
  • 212,000 new or replacement Social Security Cards were not issued
  • 360,000 Medicare doctor visits were denied
  • 800,000 toll-free calls for information about Medicare were not answered
  • 80,000 passport and visa applications were delayed
  • 2,000,000 National Parks visitors were turned away
  • More than $800 million FHA loans were denied
  • More than 20% of Federal contracts (which represents about $3.7 billion) were adversely affected.

There is a case to be made that the above actions may have actually saved the government money because for a portion of time, the government wasn’t spending on these programs. The current freeze shows how the Republican-controlled Congress may face struggles when trying to pass legislation under a Trump Administration. These types of arguments are likely to carry over in 2017, and might even intensify with Donald Trump at the helm. Happy Holidays!

Sources: n.d. Government Shutdown? The Costs of a Shutdown. Accessed December 9, 2016.

Clarke, Tara. 2015. U.S. Government Shutdown History. October 6.

Kaplan, Thomas. 2016. Government Shutdown Looms Over Stopgap Spending Measure. December 8.

Mcbain, Sophia. 2013. What Happens During a US Government Shutdwon. October 1.

Peterson, Kristina. 2016. Wall Street Journal. December 8.

University of California, Berkeley. 2000. 1995-1996 Government Shutdown.

Weber, Peter. 2013. Why other countries don't shut down their government. October 2.


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