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What Is a Government Shutdown?

Shutdowns last until an agreement over how the government will be funded is made.

The United States federal government shutdown from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, was, at 35 days, the longest government shutdown in American history. 

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown is an event where the American government’s nonessential offices cannot operate due to a lack of funding. Various federally-run operations will stop working during the shutdown, usually because the federal budget has not been approved.

The shutdown lasts until an agreement over how the government will be funded is made. There’s no limit to how long a shutdown could continue.

How Does a Government Shutdown Start?

A government shutdown starts on Capitol Hill when the deadline to approve the federal budget passes, and the budget hasn’t been approved yet. The House of Representatives and Senate vote to pass the budget, which is then sent to the President to sign.

congress building
A government shutdown begins when the deadline for a federal budget passes without the budget being approved.

However, the budget may be rejected for various reasons by one or both parties. Any disagreement between the House or Senate or any concerns the President has over the budget could keep it from being rubber-stamped, thus triggering the shutdown.

The shutdown will last from the deadline to whenever Congress agrees to pass a responsible federal budget, and the President signs it. The two groups can also establish a temporary agreement that allows for funding for a few weeks as necessary, allowing the shutdown to end. But a new federal budget or agreement will be necessary later to ensure the shutdown doesn’t start once more.

What Happens As the Government Shuts Down?

Various essential government operations will stop operating during the government shutdown. These include operations deemed nonessential that aren’t able to fund themselves. Federal employees will be furloughed, meaning they will be on unpaid leave.

There are many noticeable signs of a shutdown:

  • Banks will struggle to process loan applications as they won’t have easy access to the information they need from the government to move forward.
  • The Small Business Administration won’t be able to approve small business loans.
  • The Federal Housing Administration will also stop approving home loans.
  • Other programs that receive funding from the government may not be able to provide funds or human services. These include various veterans’ benefits programs.
  • Social Security recipients will still receive their regular checks, but a funding gap could lead to delays in payments. The government will not issue any new Social Security cards during the shutdown to keep the gap from being a concern.
  • Government agencies responsible for regulatory operations may be closed. The Department of Agriculture won’t be able to inspect food products, for example. The National Institute of Health will also shut down much of its medical research, plus it will not review research grants.
  • People will be unable to receive new passports from the Department of State.
  • The National Park Service will be forced to close national parks and monuments during the shutdown.

Who Will Stay Open During a Government Shutdown?

Federal workers who are considered critical to the health and safety of the people will continue to be operational, including active duty military members, air traffic controllers, and employees at federal hospitals. Agents with the Transportation Security Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Agency will also continue to work.

Mail delivery services will also continue during a shutdown, as Congress doesn’t appropriate funds for the Postal Service.

Are employees who are still working paid during the shutdown?

Essential federal employees who are still active during the shutdown may not receive payment for their work until after the shutdown ends. Since there are no funds being made available, the employees will have to wait until after the shutdown to receive payment for all the work they completed during the shutdown.

A spending bill may be passed to help pay the employees without ending the shutdown. Employees may also be eligible for temporary unemployment payments, although processing a claim may take a while.

Can a Shutdown Impact the District Municipal Government?

The Washington, DC municipal government will remain open in most situations, as the local government may be interpreted as being essential. Some utility services and schools, though, may close during the federal shutdown.

How Long Can a Government Shutdown Last?

A government shutdown can last for as long as it has to, only ending when Congress and the President can agree on a spending bill that allows government agencies to function again.

Photo of President Donald Trump
The longest government shutdown in American history took place under the tenure of President Donald Trump.

The longest shutdown in the United States lasted 35 days, from December 2018 to January 2019. The shutdown occurred after President Donald Trump refused to sign any new spending bills that didn’t include funds for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. The shutdown ended after Trump and Congress agreed to a short-term bill that allowed the federal government to operate for a few weeks.

Have Other Shutdowns Happened?

There have been many other shutdowns in American history, although many lasted for less than a month:

  • The first government shutdown happened over twelve days in 1976. President Gerald Ford and Congress were in dispute over a funding bill, as Ford insisted the government was spending too much money.
  • There were three shutdowns in 1977 that lasted a total of 34 days. There were two separate temporary agreements to fund the government during a dispute over using Medicaid dollars to pay for most abortions.
  • A 21-day shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996 occurred after Republicans demanded President Bill Clinton use a seven-year time frame for handling government funding.
  • The government was shut down for a few hours in February 2018 after one Senator held up a vote for a budget.
Photo of President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton presided over a 21-day shutdown in 1995/96.

Can Local Governments Also Shut Down?

The United States is not just vulnerable to a federal government shutdown. Any local government in the country could shut down if it cannot receive the government funding it requires.

The most notable example of one part of the country shutting down came in 1992 when the state of California was shut down for 63 days. The state government and Governor Pete Wilson were unable to pass a budget before a deadline, causing the state to run out of cash reserves.

American territories can also shut down, with Puerto Rico doing so for thirteen days in 2006. The territorial government ran out of funds for a few weeks, prompting public schools throughout the commonwealth to temporarily close.

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