The United States federal government shut down at 12:01 am on Saturday as Republicans and Democrats remain in a standoff over the spending bill. But how will the shutdown end? Essentially, Congress has to reach a deal on a spending bill, which it hasn’t yet been able to do.
The government has officially shut down 18 times since the modern process that Congress uses to pass budget and spending bills took effect in 1976 — although this is the first time it’s happened under single-party control. The shutdown doesn’t mean all governmental operations cease entirely, but instead “nonessential” activities do. Which means the mail will keep coming, and Social Security checks will go out. But passport processing applications will come to a halt, and most federal employees will be furloughed.
“Congress would have to pass either another continuing resolution or permanent appropriations bill, and then funding is restored and workers are brought back,” Columbia University political science professor Greg Wawro told me. “Assume non-essential workers are furloughed, offices close, communications go out and then, basically, they just reverse the process.”
As Vox’s Tara Golshan and Dylan Scott recently explained, there are multiple avenues for legislative action:
That means Congress can 1) pass the appropriations bills, likely in an omnibus, which just crams together 11 appropriations bills into one spending package; 2) pass a “continuing resolution” (CR), which would fund the government at its current levels, basically buying more time to negotiate the actual appropriations bills (this is what Congress has done since last October); or 3) pass a “CRomnibus,” which is a combination of the two, extending the deadline on certain more contentious appropriations — like for the Department of Homeland Security — and passing a spending bill on the rest.
Lawmakers are negotiating into the weekend in hopes of striking a deal to get the government up and running again, though it’s hard to tell at this point when they’ll reach an agreement or how they might negotiate to one. And once they do, getting moving again could be complicated.
A lot will depend on how long the government is shut down
“It certainly depends on how long it’s down,” said Wendy Parmet, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Law. “If they’re down over the weekend, it’s not such a big deal. If they’re down for a long time, things back up, and then it’s a bigger process and a more complicated one.”
During shutdowns, federal employees are divided into “essential” and “nonessential” groups. Nonessential personnel receive furloughs, meaning they’re off work until the shutdown is resolved and stop receiving paychecks. Essential workers have to go to work anyway, but they’re not paid for it.
The last time the government shut down was in October 2013 for 16 days in a showdown over Obamacare funding. That time around, about 850,000 federal workers, or about 40 percent of all federal nonmilitary employees, received furloughs.
Generally, furloughed and non-furloughed workers alike are paid retroactively to cover their salaries during a shutdown. But that could take a while, and there are no guarantees. More than 25,000 federal employees are still awaiting financial compensation for damages sustained during the 2013 shutdown.
As a reminder, there are federal workers who "are still awaiting financial compensation for damages sustained during the 2013 government shutdown." https://t.co/ehC7EWTtT3— Shawna Thomas (@Shawna) January 20, 2018
And there's your fun shutdown fact of the day.
Moreover, it’s not just full-time federal employees who are affected — it’s potentially thousands of contractors as well. The Office of Management and Budget’s guidance varies on what types of contractors are and are not required to keep working — whether their work is necessary for health or safety, whether their supervisors will be working, whether they’ve been paid in advance, according to the Washington Post. An OMB assessment found that the 2013 resulted in 10,000 stop work orders for contracts and numerous temporary layoffs, and payment delays “forced contractors to temporarily lay off employees and imposed particular financial hardship on small businesses with less ability to absorb losses and put off payments of their own.”
Broadly, some of those most affected by the shutdown are the most vulnerable — kids in the Head Start program, military families, janitors, security guards, and other low-wage federal contractors.
“If it’s a weekend, I don’t think it’s an enormous mess,” Parmet told me. “If it’s two weeks, it starts becoming a real problem to real people.”
A government shutdown is bad for the economy (obviously)
While a government shutdown won’t have devastating effects on the economy, it’s not good either. And some of what’s lost during a shutdown simply can’t be recovered.
According to an analysis from the Obama White House, the 2013 shutdown cost the federal government $2 billion in furloughed employee salaries, and 120,000 fewer private sector jobs were created than would have been otherwise. Hundreds of patients were prevented from enrolling in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, and almost $4 billion in tax refunds were delayed.
According to analysts at research firm S&P Global, the current shutdown could cost the economy about $6.5 billion per week, or about 0.2 percent of the United States’ fourth quarter 2017 gross domestic product.
“It hurts the economy and the many people who are directly or indirectly reliant on the government for their livelihoods,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at consumer financial services company Bankrate, in an email. “With most Americans unable to muster sufficient savings to pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense, this shutdown can only do further damage.”
Eventually Congress will reach a deal, but partisan brinksmanship isn’t going to end
Republicans and Democrats will eventually strike a deal to fund the government. Federal workers will go back to work and get paid, passports will start processing, trash pickup at national parks will resume. But the partisanship that got us here in the first place — and the supposedly deal-making president’s inability to make a deal — will continue.
“There has not been a strong move toward bipartisanship on this, and this is the way that Congress has been operating for the past several years,” Wawro said. Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act on party lines; Republicans had the recent tax bill. “It’s just become standard operating procedure. And the issue for Republicans is that Congress is not united enough in order to provide the votes to keep things open.”
Five Republicans voted against a House-passed spending bill on Friday. Demands from ultra-conservatives in the House and President Donald Trump’s antagonistic antics, particularly on immigration, have jammed things up further.
“This is a symptom of hyper-polarization, norm-breaking dysfunctionality,” Parmet said. “I don’t know how we put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”