Acton Institute Powerblog

Explainer: What you should know about a government shutdown

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Why is there talk about a government shutdown?

In December Congress passed the Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 (H.R. 1370) which provides non-discretionary funding through January 19, 2018. Because that Act expires at midnight on Friday, Congress must pass a new continuing appropriations act to keep the government operating.

Democrats in Congress are insisting that any new stop-gap spending measure to keep the government funded must include a legislative fix on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act. Republicans, however, say that DACA must be dealt with separately from this spending bill. If members of Congress can’t come to an agreement before the deadline, the result will be a government shutdown.

Why don’t government agencies just 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.

Why does Congress have to vote to keep funding the government?

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to allocate all funds collected through taxes (“No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”). Most government spending is mandatory spending, which means Congress has passed a law requiring monies to be used for specific purposes. Examples of mandatory spending are Medicare and Medicaid, Social security, and unemployment benefits.

Approximately 35 percent of government spending, though, is non-discretionary spending. This type of spending includes spending on such things as defense, homeland security, and education. For the federal agencies to receive this funding Congress has to authorize this spending. In December Congress passed the Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 (H.R. 1370) which provides non-discretionary funding through January 19, 2018.

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.

Are government benefit checks affected by a shutdown?

Not directly. Benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and retirement for veterans are mandatory spending so they are unaffected. However, if the workers who mail the checks are considered “non-essential” it may result in delays in the checks being sent out.

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 always voted to pay furloughed workers retroactively.

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 18 shutdowns, though before the 1980s the government continued operating at reduced levels without furloughing workers. The most recent shutdown was in 2013 and lasted 16 days.

Prior to that was the longest shutdown of modern history—a 21 day shutdown in December 2005 that came soon after a five-day shutdown that lasted from November 13-19. Those shutdowns were sparked by a disagreement over tax cuts between then-President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Since they Republicans have a majority in the House and Senate, why can’t they just pass the spending bill?

Because the spending bill requires a filibuster proof majority to pass in the Senate, Republicans will need to find 9 Democrats to support any proposal.

Who gets blamed for government shutdowns?

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in 2013 found that 53 percent of Americans blamed Republicans in Congress while only 31 percent blamed President Obama.

An NBC News/Washington Post survey in 1995 found 49 percent of Americans said Republicans in Congress were mainly responsible for standing in the way of an agreement to end the shutdown, just 34 percent blamed Clinton, and 13 percent volunteered that both were responsible.

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).

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