The federal government shuts down when congress and the president fail to pass appropriations legislation funding operations and agencies. That means the furlough of non-essential personnel, and the restriction of activities and services. Prior to 1990, gaps in funding did not always lead to government shutdowns. There have been eight shutdowns since 1980, the longest of which was in 1995 into 1996 when President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich battled over funding for Medicare, education, the environment, and public health in the 1996 federal budget.
The separation of powers created by the Constitution gives congress the power and responsibility of appropriating or allocating government funds. The funding bill starts in the house of representatives and then must be approved by the senate. Upon passage it then moves to the President’s desk for signing, at which point it becomes a law.
During a shutdown, many federal agencies continue to operate while minimizing all nonessential operations. The main effect of a full government shutdown is that a large number of civilian federal employees are furloughed. During the shutdown, furloughed employees are prohibited from even checking their e-mail from home and must turn in their work devices (laptop and phone) to ensure that they don’t continue to work.
Despite the political rhetoric from both parties about the effects of a full shutdown, economic data shows that any GDP damage or falling job market confidence during a shutdown can be managed with relative ease. For example, during the 2013 shutdown under president Obama, 1.3 million workers had payment delays and a further 800,000 were licked out, but market confidence rebounded within a month. GDP slowed only 0.1-0.2%.
During a shutdown, emergency personnel continue to be employed, which includes active duty military, federal law enforcement agents, doctors and nurses working in federal hospitals, and air traffic controllers. Mail delivery is not affected as it is a self-funded system and not subject to appropriations oversight by congress.
Programs that are funded by laws other than annual appropriates, like social security, may be affected by a funding game, especially if that program relies on the annual appropriation of funding. Within the Department of Defense, at least half of the civilian workforce as well as military technicians in the National guard are furloughed and not paid while the shutdown is in effect.
Members of congress continue to be paid because their pay cannot be altered except by direct law.
Where we are now
On Monday the house gave final approval to a measure that would fund the government for another three weeks, ending the three-day government shutdown. The deal was made when Senator Mitch McConnell, a republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, pledged to allow and immigration vote in the coming weeks. This sets the stage for the battle over Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US illegally as children.
Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants have been protected from deportation under the Obama-era initiative, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. President Trump rescinded the program in September and gave Congress six months, until march 5th, to present a replacement. At the moment, the future of the Dreamers is in the hands of senator McConnell, hoping that he doesn’t go back on his word, and that speaker of the house Paul Ryan follows suit.