Explainer: What You Should Know About Government Shutdowns
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: What You Should Know About Government Shutdowns

US-government-shutdownAre we headed for a government shutdown?

Probably not—at least not for a few more months. The Senate is voting today on a “clean” stopgap spending measure that will fund the federal government until Dec. 11. The House is expected to also approve this bill.

What does a “clean” measure mean?

After a Congressional committee has amended legislation, the chairman may be authorized by the panel to assemble the changes and what remains unchanged from the original bill and then reintroduce everything as a clean bill. A clean bill may expedite Senate action by avoiding separate floor consideration of each committee amendment.

The amendment that was stripped was a provision to defund Planned Parenthood. Although it was supported by most conservatives in Congress, as the AP reports, eight Republicans did not support that measure, leaving it short of a simple majority, much less the 60 votes required to overcome the filibuster. (A recent poll found that by a margin of almost two-to-one (60 percent to 32 percent), the public says any budget agreement must maintain funding for Planned Parenthood.)

Why do we seem to be under a threat of a potential government shutdown every fall?

Under the Constitution, Congress must pass laws to spend money. If Congress can’t agree on a spending bill the government does not have the legal authority to spend money. Spening is supposed to be authorized in the federal budget, but the last time Congress passed a budget was in 1997. Congress passed the closest thing to a budget, an omnibus spending bill, in 2009 and 2011. In the absence of a budget deal Congress and the President must enact a number of “stop gap” measures (supplemental appropriations bills or emergency supplemental appropriations bills). Since the government runs on a fiscal year from October 1 to September 30, the spending authorization ends tomorrow. As usual, Congress has simply extended the stop-gap measure to keep the government running until mid-December.

The entire government doesn’t actually shut down during a government shutdown, does it?

No. Programs deemed “essential” — which includes, among other agencies and services, the military, air traffic control, food inspections, etc. — would continue as normal. “Non-essential” programs and services such as national parks and federal museums would be closed. Federal workers deemed non-essential will also be furloughed.

What about government benefit checks?

Benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and retirement for veterans are unaffected, though if the workers who mail the checks are considered “non-essential” it may result in delays.

How do lawmakers work if the Capitol is shut down and their workers are furloughed?

Congress is exempted from the furloughs and the Capitol building will stay open, so lawmakers aren’t really affected. Several types of executive branch officials and employees are also not subject to furlough. These include the president, presidential appointees, and federal employees deemed excepted by the Office of Public Management.

Would I still get mail during a shutdown?

Yes. The United States Postal Service is exempt from the federal government shutdown because it does not receive it’s budget from annual appropriations from Congress.

Would government workers still get paid?

Federal workers placed on furlough will not get paid during a shutdown. However, after past shutdowns, Congress has voted to pay furloughed workers retroactively.

Could government agencies ignore the shutdown?

Under a federal law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it can be a felony to spend taxpayer money without an appropriation from Congress.

Would a shutdown save the government money?

Not if past shutdowns are any indication. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reports that estimates vary widely, but “evidence suggests that shutdowns tend to cost, not save, money.” The last shutdown cost the government $1.4 billion, according to an estimate by the Office of Management and Budget.

So we’ve had such shutdowns before?

Since 1976, there have been 17 shutdowns, though before the 1980s the government continued operating at reduced levels without furloughing workers. The last one lasted 21 days from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. It came soon after a five-day shutdown that lasted from Nov. 13-19, 1995. Those shutdowns were sparked by a disagreement over tax cuts between then-President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).