What Actually Happens in a ‘Government Shutdown’?

President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats have been at odds of late, primarily over whether the government will ultimately provide funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As we near the end of the year, this impasse threatens to result in a government shutdown. With so much talk about this going on these days, here are some answers to common questions about what all of this means.

How does a “government shutdown” even happen?

The federal government gets its operating budget by way of Congress’ passing “appropriations bills.” Those bills, which essentially contain budgets, operate just like other laws – Congress drafts them, and sends them to POTUS, where they’ll either get signed or vetoed. If signed, they become law, and things carry on. If vetoed (without a two-thirds vote to override), the government is legally required to “shut down,” unless a “continuing resolution” is passed. Such a continuing resolution is a temporary stop-gap measure that allows parts of the government to continue receiving funding at existing rates until Congress and POTUS can get their act together on the upcoming budget.

Where are we on the shutdown timeline?

Some government agencies have already been funded through September 2019. Others, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Interior Department, the Departure of Agriculture and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have budgets set to expire on December 21, 2018. The last time this happened, the government passed a resolution to keep things “open” through January, 2018, so that’s likely what Congress will again if necessary.

If no continuing resolution is passed, what would actually happen?

“Shut down” sounds very dramatic, as if suddenly, Washington D.C. will turn into some sort of post-apocalyptic graveyard. But that’s not really what it means. Generally speaking, hundreds of thousands of non-essential government employees (which are most government employees) will get an unpaid vacation called a “furlough.”  Some government agencies will be put on light-duty. National parks and monuments will be closed. Other stuff, though, like law enforcement agencies and military, will most likely stay open for business. Things like social security checks will still be issued.

Some of the more dramatic results could include:

  • Immigration: The Department of Homeland Security will limit some of its services.
  • Law enforcement: The FBI would likely carry on as usual, but the Justice Department would probably suspend civil cases.
  • Parks and museums: More than 400 national parks and museums would be closed.
  • Regulatory agencies: Agencies like the EPA, OSHA, and the FDA may shut down completely, or may be forced to operate at minimal levels.
  • Passports: Some passport agencies may be shut down
  • Veterans: Some key benefits would stay in place, but many services (such as education and rehabilitation programs) could be interrupted. A long shutdown has the potential to affect disability claims and pension payments to veterans.
  • Women, Infants, and Children: The WIC program helps pregnant women and new mothers with food costs would likely be threatened soon after a shutdown.
  • Unpaid work: Thousands of law enforcement officers will be expected to report to work without pay.

Is any of this really all that bad?

It all depends on your definition of “bad.” Your friend who works as an administrative assistant for the EPA and your neighbor who is a clerk at the Federal Reserve probably won’t be too thrilled about being expected to forego their next paychecks. But if you’re someone who focuses more on the big picture of the American political landscape, you may find the shutdown to be positive. President Trump would be likely to spin a shutdown as proof positive of his negotiating acumen and unwavering resolve to deliver on campaign promises; if you are someone who deeply values or deeply opposes funding of Trump’s border wall, you may applaud one side or the other for taking a firm stand. On the other hand, if you are more of a fan of compromise, you’ll likely view a shutdown as tangible evidence of a dysfunctional government.

Whose fault would a shutdown be?

As any seasoned talking head can tell you, fault is in the eye of the beholder. Many will argue that President Trump would bear ultimate responsibility, given that a shutdown would result most directly from a presidential veto. Trump recently even said he’d be willing to take the heat, without blaming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Despite this, others will likely throw blame toward Congressional Democrats for refusing to back down from their budgetary demands.

How long would a shutdown last?

That’s anyone’s guess. It could literally last just for a few days, but long enough for President Trump to declare himself an executive badass, and then sign the continuing resolution. It could go on longer, too, of course – as the shutdowns of 1995 and 2013 did.  The new Congress begins January 3, 2019, when Dems take over the House, so that seems like a reasonable finish line for this mess.

Who holds the most control during a shutdown?

The President. Although the executive and legislative branches of government have [at least theoretically] equal power to effectuate legislation, only the president has the authority to pronounce federal services as “essential,” or “non essential.”  Therefore, it will be up to President Trump to decide which federal agencies or employees would come to a screeching halt, and which would continue as usual. While the political prelude to a shutdown necessarily includes widespread foot-stomping, POTUS alone has the power to define the scope of the damage.

As my Law & Crime colleague Colin Kalmbacher so eloquently put it, a government shutdown “is a form of shock doctrine politics–using an imaginary crisis to exact concessions from political opponents.”  Mitch McConnell may be praying for a Christmas miracle, but others in Washington may not be in the holiday spirit.

An earlier version of this article appeared on January 19, 2018.

[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

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