September 27, 2018

In the past seven weeks, President Donald Trump has publicly threatened to shut down the U.S. government seven times. Most of his threats have mentioned a possible shutdown unless a spending bill is passed before October 1. His main concern is immigration - specifically, funding for a U.S.-Mexico wall, funding for increased border security, and an end to the "catch and release" of undocumented immigrants.

US Senate class photo.

Of course, neither party wants to see the government shut down prior to the midterm elections. The Senate has already approved yet another stopgap measure that will fund the military and many civilian agencies for one year, as well as keep the government running through December 7, 2018. However, even if that bill is passed, it is still likely that the government will shut down before the end of the year.

The U.S. government has only shut down twice in the past 20 years. The last time was earlier this year, when a fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall erupted. Another shutdown nearly happened just two weeks later, when a single senator prevented the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 from being passed.


What happens during a shutdown

During a shutdown, government operations are triaged: There are nonessential functions, essential functions and functions with separate funding. The first are almost completely closed, the second remain mostly functioning and the ongoing operations of the third are determined on an ad hoc basis.

Most nonessential functions, such the National Zoo and NASA, are shut down. Personnel may be able to come into work to close out any projects in progress, but after that they will be forced to go on furlough. While back pay is customarily distributed to furloughed employees after a shutdown, it is not guaranteed.

A photo of the US military.

Essential functions, such as U.S. military operations, continue as necessary. Even in the event of a shutdown, national security remains of utmost importance. While certain activities, such as the training of reservists, is scaled back or temporarily eliminated, "active forces will stay xx at their posts adapting their training to xx achieve the least negative xx impact on [the United States'] readiness to fight" according to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The Department of Homeland Security, however, cuts its workforce by about 10 percent (or 31,000 people).

Government functions that have separate funding - or access to it - are able to continue to operate at least partially. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, has a source of non-appropriated funds that allows it to continue full operations in the event of a lapse in funding. The United States Postal Service continues to deliver mail as usual and air traffic controllers continue to work to make sure flights are directed safely to their destinations.

Who loses in a shutdown

On the surface, forcing the government to shut down might seem like a victimless move. A lot of people get to take vacations, nearly everything that directly affects the general populace continues to run, and eventually the government begins operating normally again.

National park temporarily closed.

The 16-day shutdown during the Obama administration, however, took more than $24 billion out of the economy, according to Standard & Poor's. All national parks - including the National Mall - were closed, turning away those who tried to visit. And while furloughed government workers usually get back pay, taxpayers never actually get what they have paid for.

Using government shutdowns as a means of shaping economic policy is costly for the government, government workers and for private citizens. While it can be used to effectively veto government spending on certain items and thus to rein in the federal deficit, the tactic should be used carefully in order to ensure minimal disruption for the operations of the United States.