What Is a Government Shutdown?

A government shutdown happens when nonessential government offices can no longer remain open due to lack of funding. The lack of funding usually occurs when there is a delay in the approval of the federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The shutdown remains in effect until parties can reach a compromise and a budget bill passes. During a government shutdown, many federally run operations will halt. Some organizations may still stay open by running on cash reserves, but once these funds run out, they will also close. Any office which does not receive funding from Congress would continue to operate during the shutdown.

Open Agencies and Essential Government Workers

Some agencies will remain open during a government shutdown. These services are those that, if suspended, it would endanger the health, life, or personal safety of the public. Also, essential employees will continue to work. However, these employees may not earn a paycheck during the time of the government shutdown unless a specific spending bill is passed to fund those work hours.

Essential employees include those working in the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Federal Reserve would continue its operations, as would the Post Office since it is government-owned but does not receive federal funds. 

According to the Military Benefits website, the disbursement of payments from government sources to citizens for veterans’ benefits or unemployment insurance will continue. These programs receive money from specially earmarked budgets and funds from advanced Congressional appropriations. Also, furloughed federal employees may apply for temporary unemployment, but the processing of claims may be prolonged.

Key Takeaways

  • A government shutdown happens when nonessential government offices can no longer remain open due to lack of funding. Government shutdowns happen when a federal budget is not approved.
  • Most government agencies will close during a shutdown, however some essential workers must continue to work but may be furloughed for pay.
  • Veterans' benefits and unemployment payments will continue, unaffected.
  • Long duration government shutdowns will affect the entire American economy.

Seeing the Effects of a Government Shutdown

Government shutdowns can affect many government processing functions. Nonessential agencies who cannot self-fund, through the collection of fees or other revenue sources may be forced to furlough, or give unpaid leave, to its employees. Most of the public will see the effect of the government shutdown in the lessening of services they may expect or receive. Perhaps the most visual of these closing is in the shutting down of national parks and monuments.

However, the real effects of a government shutdown are widespread. It may take longer, or be impossible to process new loans for homes, businesses, and education. New applications for Social Security benefits and the processing of unemployment will also slow. Again, according to the Military Benefits website, death benefits and travel reimbursements will not be paid to the surviving family of servicemembers killed in action.

Other effects may extend to:

  • The inspection of some food products for safety, as reported by The New York Times
  • Recall of unsafe products by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • The inability of gun owners to obtain permits
  • Travelers will not receive new passports
  • Preschool or after school program cancelation
  • The Center for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) being unable to identify and track outbreaks of illness

If the government shutdown remains in place long enough, more agencies will close or reduce the services they provide to the public as a whole, and a larger portion of the American population will begin to see the direct effects.

Government Shutdown Effects on the Economy

As government operations slow or stop altogether, the effects may spread to impact other businesses in the private sector. The entire economy may lose money as a result of the disruption in government operations. The overall cost and lasting impact of government shutdown on the economy may vary. As reported by The Washington Post, the government shutdown of 2013 lasted for 16 days and may have lost an estimated $24 billion to the US economy.

Furloughed, or unpaid workers, often curtail their spending and will impact local businesses. So, as substantial numbers of federal workers are furloughed and not spending as expected, the companies that typically serve them may see a revenue decrease. Companies which tend to the needs of open and running agencies, such as office supply businesses, will see the impact in reduced sales. Also, the hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality services which cater to the visitors of the national parks and monuments will lose notable business during a shutdown. 

Further, banks, while not government-controlled, would not be able to access the information they need to process loan applications. Such information as income submitted on the applicant's tax records are essential during the loan application process. The fees which banks charge to process loans would affect the bank's revenues, and the inability to finance a new home will impact the housing market as a whole.

How Funding Requests Lead to Government Shutdown

The funding of the federal budget is a long and complicated procedure, involving the coordination and cooperation of many diverse entities including the President, the members of both houses of Congress, and the federal agencies and departments who will receive the funding. Many events may delay the budget's approval including economic downturns, political politics, and the efforts of lobbyists.

35 days

The length of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, which occurred in January 2019 under President Trump.

The government's fiscal year begins on October first, and the President will send his request to Congress in February. Each year, governmental agencies will submit outlines for the amount of money they need to continue operations to the White House. The sitting President and his staff will review and revise these funding requests, and then petition Congress to provide the requested funds. The House and Senate Congressional Appropriations Committees will consider the President's funding request. The committees will also make adjustments to the amounts the agencies initially asked to receive. After they reach a consensus on budgets amounts, a Bill goes to the floors of the House and Senate where there can be a debate followed by a floor vote. Next, the Bill will return to the White House for it to be signed into law or vetoed.

Real World Example

At midnight on December 21, 2018, the United States went into a government shutdown. President Trump and the members of Congress were unable to agree on 2019 fiscal year funding. According to a January 13th article in Forbes, the government shutdown affected approximately 800,000 federal employees. In a fact sheet released by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, it finds "more than 420,000 federal employees were expected to work without pay" and "more than 380,000 federal employees would be placed on furlough, effectively on leave without pay." As reported by Politico, Senate Republican, Ted Cruz, and the President countered that the government shutdown continued because the Democrats refused to approve new funding for items they have agreed to fund in past budgets.