The federal government is hurtling towards a shutdown, a situation that promises to disrupt numerous services, place immense pressure on workers, and sow political discord. At the center of this crisis are House Republicans, driven by staunch conservative demands for substantial spending cuts, who are steering the country towards a showdown over federal expenditures.
During a government shutdown, certain services continue unaffected, like Social Security disbursements, but many other vital functions are severely curtailed. Federal agencies are compelled to halt all non-essential activities, leading to millions of federal employees, including military personnel, enduring the suspension of their paychecks.
So, what exactly is a government shutdown? It occurs when Congress fails to pass funding legislation that the President can sign into law. Ideally, lawmakers should pass 12 separate spending bills to fund various government agencies, but this process is time-consuming. Often, they resort to passing a temporary extension known as a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running. However, when no funding legislation is enacted, federal agencies must cease all non-essential work and withhold paychecks for the duration of the shutdown. Fortunately, essential employees, such as air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers, must continue working and are entitled to backpay once the funding crisis is resolved, as stipulated by a 2019 law.
The impending shutdown is slated to commence on October 1, marking the beginning of the federal fiscal year. Should Congress fail to pass a funding plan signed into law by the President, the shutdown will officially begin at 12:01 a.m. Predicting the duration of a shutdown is difficult, given the current political landscape, with a Democratic-controlled Senate, a Republican-led House, and conservative House Speaker Kevin McCarthy aiming to leverage the shutdown for spending cuts. This precarious balance suggests the shutdown could persist for weeks.
A government shutdown has far-reaching implications, affecting millions of federal workers, including over 2 million military personnel and 2 million civilian employees nationwide. These workers are spread across various departments, with nearly 60% stationed in the Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security departments. Their duties span from airport security to mail delivery, and some federal offices may close or operate with reduced hours during a shutdown.
Beyond federal workers, a shutdown can disrupt government services, causing delays for those seeking services such as clinical trials, firearm permits, and passports. Businesses closely tied to the federal government, like federal contractors and tourist services around national parks, could also suffer disruptions. The travel sector, in particular, may lose $140 million daily during a shutdown. Furthermore, a shutdown can rattle financial markets, with Goldman Sachs estimating that it could reduce economic growth by 0.2% each week, though growth would rebound once the government reopens. The disruption in government services can erode confidence in its ability to fulfill basic responsibilities, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce emphasizing the importance of a functioning government for a healthy economy.
As for court cases, the work of Congress, and presidential pay, the President and members of Congress will continue to work and receive their salaries, while non-essential staff may be furloughed. The judiciary can continue operations for a limited time using funds from court filings and other fees. Notably, funding for special counsels, including those overseeing cases against former President Donald Trump and Hunter Biden, would remain unaffected, as it falls under a permanent, indefinite appropriation exempted from shutdowns.
Government shutdowns have occurred before, but they became more prominent since the era of Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. The most extended shutdown in recent history lasted 35 days during 2018-2019, triggered by a standoff between President Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall. This disruption, however, was partial, as some appropriations bills had already been passed to fund parts of the government.
To end a shutdown, Congress must fund the government. Both the House and Senate must reach an agreement on funding, with the President signing the legislation into law. Typically, Congress resorts to continuing resolutions to temporarily fund government offices while budget negotiations are ongoing. However, hardline Republicans are opposing any temporary measures and are determined to keep the government closed until all 12 government funding bills are negotiated—an arduous process that typically extends into December, at the earliest.
With former President Trump supporting these Republican hardliners, the potential for an extended government shutdown looms, with its duration uncertain, perhaps stretching for weeks or even longer.