Everything you need to know about government shutdowns

A weathered metal gate painted in red-and-white stripes has a sign taped to it reading “Recreation facility closed.” Behind the gate, evergreen trees cover steep hillsides.
Access to the Charlton Flat campground is blocked by a locked gate in the Angeles National Forest on October 2, 2013 in the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles, California, during a partial government shutdown that year. | David McNew/Getty Images

What is — and isn’t — closed during a government shutdown.

The US government sure looks like it’s on track for another shutdown.

Currently, the House of Representatives has yet to pass any legislation that would keep the government fully funded. If lawmakers fail to take action before midnight on October 1, the government will go into a partial shutdown that will result in hundreds of thousands of federal employees being furloughed, the closure of important facilities like immigration courts, and potential staffing shortages in fields like air traffic control.

It’s a completely avoidable outcome, but it’s one that appears increasingly likely since House Republicans haven’t been able to agree on a short-term spending measure.

Because Congress still hasn’t approved longer-term, full-year appropriations, it needs to pass a short-term bill, also known as a continuing resolution or CR, to keep the lights on and buy itself more time to negotiate.

Thus far, the Senate has made moves to pass a relatively “clean” continuing resolution that would keep the government open for about 47 days, and includes $6 billion in funding for Ukraine and natural disaster aid, respectively. This measure, however, has run into opposition in the House, where several conservative lawmakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are opposed to giving any more aid to Ukraine. It’s also been slowed by similar opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), meaning a final vote may not take place until Saturday morning or later.

House Republicans have failed to provide any real counteroffer of their own. That’s partly because there’s a decent segment of their conference that isn’t interested in any type of short-term spending bill, due to concerns it won’t result in significant enough budget cuts. Led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a contingent of roughly 10 Republicans — enough to blow up any GOP proposal brought to the floor — have promised to oppose any CR. Thursday, the House Freedom Caucus suggested its members won’t back a CR without some concessions from leadership on long-term spending.

Friday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to pass a short-term measure anyway. The resolution McCarthy wanted pass isn’t the one from the Senate, but one crafted in the House that’s likely to be rejected by the upper chamber. That proposal would reduce spending to $1.47 trillion, make US border policy harsher, and would set up a commission to study US spending.

While the Senate might accept that final provision, the first two are nonstarters, meaning even if it were to pass — which it didn’t, with 21 Republicans voting against it — the resolution wouldn’t stop a shutdown.

On Thursday, House Republicans passed three full-year spending bills, also expected to be dead on arrival in the Senate, in an effort to build momentum for passing the House’s CR. Together, they aren’t enough to keep the government open in the short term.

To ultimately get a CR across the finish line, McCarthy will likely need Democratic help. He’s avoided working with the opposition, however, because doing so could threaten his speakership. Gaetz, for example, is among those who have threatened to bring up a “motion to vacate,” which could depose the speaker, if he doesn’t subscribe to Republican demands. And, in exchange for Democratic votes, McCarthy would likely need to accept some of the minority’s demands on Ukraine and other issues. That would only anger the segment of his caucus that’s against him further, adding to the general discontent with his leadership.

Due to this dynamic, the chances of House Republicans shutting down the government in the next few days remain pretty high.

How bad would a government shutdown actually be?

A government shutdown’s impact can vary based on how long it is. If it’s relatively short, there’s usually little disruption to federal employees and services.

If a closure drags on longer, however, as it did in 2019 — when the shutdown lasted 35 days — its effects can become much more noticeable. That year, tens of thousands of federal employees missed two paychecks, and many important services, including air traffic control, suffered from staffing shortages.

The government didn’t begin to experience modern-day shutdowns until Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued an opinion in the 1980s that required federal agencies to curb operations if Congress did not approve sufficient funding. Since then, the government has shut down 14 times, from as long as one day to 35 days.

During a government shutdown, federal agencies decide which employees will continue working and which services will continue at a regular level.

When it comes to staffing, federal employees are effectively separated into essential and nonessential workers, with the former required to keep working and the latter furloughed. Both types of workers have to go without pay, with narrow exceptions, including for lawmakers and the president. Essential workers are typically viewed as the ones needed to keep basic, fundamental government services functioning.

All told, roughly 2 million federal civilian workers and 2 million federal military workers would be impacted across the country in the case of a shutdown. That means regardless of whether they are essential or nonessential workers, they’re all likely to see delays to their paychecks if a shutdown goes on for longer than two weeks.

These delays can prove harmful to federal employees and potentially even more so for government contractors, who have not received back pay in the past. Federal government employees, meanwhile, will get backpay — just later than their usual paychecks.

Because agencies are operating in a more limited fashion, there’s also a reduction in government services. And on a broader economic level, these shutdowns have had costs for the country because they delay federal spending and reduce productivity. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $3 billion in GDP was lost as a result of the 2019 shutdown that won’t be recovered.

Which services are — and aren’t — affected?

Certain government services, like Social Security and Medicare, will keep operating much like they usually do, while others, like immigration courts, low-risk food safety inspections, and national parks will operate in a more limited capacity or not at all.

Some of those reductions are poised to include:

  • WIC: Short for Women, Infants and Children, this social program helps 7 million pregnant people, parents, and kids pay for groceries; it could see its payments affected as early as next week.
  • Immigration courts: Roughly 60,000 immigration court hearings were canceled during the last government shutdown and could be canceled again.
  • Civil courts: Most federal civil trials will be delayed, and new cases are unlikely to be considered.
  • National parks and Smithsonian museums: These entities are some of the most visible to typically be affected by shutdowns. While they may stay open, they could limit their hours and access to facilities like bathrooms depending on how long the shutdown continues.
  • Low-risk food inspections: Higher-risk food inspections for goods like meat have tended to continue in the past, while lower-risk reviews on items like cookies and crackers have been delayed.
  • Small business loans: The Small Business Administration is set to pause reviews and approvals of new loans during a shutdown.
  • Military efforts: The Pentagon is set to pause its recruitment efforts during a shutdown, and payments to contractors and suppliers could be delayed.

Other services, some of which operate based on mandatory spending each year, are expected to continue uninterrupted. They are:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid: These are all slated to keep up their operations uninterrupted. All three programs fall under “mandatory spending” that the federal government has committed to — and are not affected by the annual appropriations process. (Medicaid also relies, in part, on state spending.)
  • US Postal Service: Mail delivery, which relies on an independent source of revenue from the sale of products and services, will continue uninterrupted.
  • SNAP food aid: The USDA says it has enough funding for food stamps — which are used by 40 million Americans — to last through the end of October. Should the shutdown extend into November, however, people may not receive benefits.
  • FEMA: Available federal disaster aid will continue to be distributed, but the agency may not have the money to properly respond to any disasters that happen during the shutdown.
  • Criminal prosecutions: Federal prosecutions, including the cases being brought against Donald Trump, will continue, while civil cases may be paused.
  • Congress: The legislative branch will continue to work, though some staffers may be furloughed, leading to delays in certain constituent services. Additionally, lawmakers still collect paychecks even if others are delayed.
  • White House: Though administrative aides are usually furloughed, the president, Cabinet members, and many executive offices, like the National Security Council, will continue working.
  • Military: Service members will be required to stay at their posts, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which will continue to maintain key infrastructure like dams.

Why does the government shut down?

Every year, Congress is required to pass 12 new spending bills by the end of September that help fund different federal agencies as well as the legislative branch for the next year. If Congress doesn’t approve spending bills in time, the government shuts down. Both chambers must pass these bills, so if the Senate approves legislation but the House does not, the government goes into shutdown.

Often, Congress is unable to get its work done in time, so it passes a short-term spending bill that keeps funding levels the same as the prior year. That short-term bill usually keeps the government open for another few months — enough time for lawmakers to negotiate and pass the 12 spending bills.

This time around, the main issue is that the House has been unable to approve a short-term funding bill.

Republicans can’t agree on a bill they would support — with several conservatives balking at backing a short-term bill at all. At the same time, McCarthy has yet to ask for the Democratic support that would be needed to approve bipartisan legislation without these conservatives. That’s left Congress — despite the Senate’s efforts — on the road to a shutdown.

How could a government shutdown end?

Government shutdowns have historically ended with the party that instigated it caving once voters start blaming them for the impact they’ve had on services.

This was the case in 2019, when Trump pushed for the longest government shutdown in history by arguing that Republicans shouldn’t approve any bill that didn’t include $5 billion in funding for his border wall. That shutdown lasted for 35 days, and was extremely unpopular.

At the time, a Morning Consult poll showed that 54 percent of Americans blamed Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown, compared to the 35 percent who blamed Democrats. Beyond its unpopularity, another major reason the shutdown ended was because everyday life was becoming increasingly difficult.

In particular, a growing number of air traffic controllers called in sick in protest over the lack of pay and staffing shortages. Those absences made it unsafe to fly and land planes in prominent airports like LaGuardia in New York. Ultimately, Trump didn’t win much: he agreed to reopen the government without any funding allocated to his border wall.

A similar scenario played out in 2013 as well, when House Republicans were blamed for shutting down the government for 16 days. That year, they shut down because they wanted to defund Obamacare, another push that failed. Public sentiment also grew against the shutdown, with 53 percent of people putting the blame on Republicans at that time.

All this has made some Republicans wary of another shutdown in 2023 due to concerns that it makes the party look bad and gives Democrats another talking point to highlight their dysfunction. As Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) told the Washington Post, in a sentiment that seems common on the Senate side, if not in the House: “That’s what’s crazy about this, you should never shut down the government.”

Beyond the possibility of Republicans ultimately caving, there are other efforts lawmakers are working on to try to find a resolution to the shutdown. One is a discharge petition, which can be used to force a vote on a bill without the speaker’s permission. A majority of the House would need to back the petition for that to happen, however, and it’ll take time to move through the chamber as well.

And although some moderate Republicans have signaled openness to it, it would still be significant for them to vote in a way that directly undercuts their party’s leadership. Doing so could affect their standing in their caucus, make future work with other members of their party more difficult, and leave them vulnerable to primary challenges.

Using a motion to the previous question is another possibility that’s been floated. This motion, if it passes, ends debate on a bill and also allows the minority to force a vote, circumventing the speaker. It requires a simple majority in order to be enacted as well, creating the same concerns as a discharge petition for moderate Republicans contemplating working with Democrats to invoke it.

Update, September 29, 4:20 pm ET: This story was originally published on September 28 and has been updated to reflect funding bill developments.

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