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Explainer: why the US government is facing (another) shutdown

The dysfunctions of America’s federal government, primarily caused by Republican intransigence, have created a menagerie of strange new political beasts: fiscal cliffs, sequestrations, nuclear options…

President Barack Obama’s health care bill is behind a looming US government shutdown by Republicans. AAP

The dysfunctions of America’s federal government, primarily caused by Republican intransigence, have created a menagerie of strange new political beasts: fiscal cliffs, sequestrations, nuclear options. So there’s something comforting about the latest looming crisis, a good old-fashioned government shutdown. If Congress can’t agree on a funding bill by Monday night, the federal government closes its doors. Here’s your guide to what happens next.

First things first: what’s a government shutdown?

Without a funding bill, the federal government can’t operate. Normally when the two parties are at an impasse, they pass a continuing resolution, a sort of mini-budget to keep the government up and running while they sort out their differences. But when they can’t even agree on that, then the federal government shuts down.

Given the constant gridlock in Congress, how is that any different from the current state of affairs?

It’s true that the Senate went nearly three years without passing a major piece of legislation. But while members of Congress sit around twiddling their thumbs, the sprawling bureaucracy of the executive branch continues to provide the services that keep the national government running. With a government shutdown, those offices and agencies close up shop.

Not altogether, though. Like a house running on a backup generator when it loses power, the government has ways of continuing its most essential functions. Border patrol, the military, air traffic control, social security offices – these all stay open. Oh, and members of Congress still get paid, too. Their staffs, however, don’t.

So what gets shut down? Major agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control, the National Park Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the National Institutes of Health. Offices stop processing visas, loan guarantees, and some veterans and unemployment benefits.

This all sounds vaguely familiar. Has this happened before?

It has – 17 times since the first one in 1976. Most are just for a day or two, so no one really notices. In 1995, however, the Republicans in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, faced off against President Bill Clinton over funding for education, public health, and the environment. For a total of 28 days, the federal government shut down. The stalemate ended when public opinion turned sharply against the Republicans, following Gingrich’s boasts that he had shut down the government after being forced to sit at the back of Air Force One.

(Bonus shutdown trivia: It was during the 1995 shutdown, when the White House was largely staffed by unpaid interns, that Bill Clinton began a relationship with one of those interns, Monica Lewinsky. The affair would lead to his impeachment in 1998.)

What is keeping the two sides from coming to an agreement this time?

Republicans and Democrats have mostly hammered out a compromise on how to spend the US$1 trillion budget for fiscal year 2014. Great, right? It was, until a group of conservative House Republicans decided the continuing resolution would be a good opportunity to go after President Obama’s health care law.

To be sure, House Republicans think it’s always the right time to attack the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). They’ve voted to repeal, defund, or delay the law at least 40 times. Earlier this year, the New York Times calculated that since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have spent 15% of their time on the floor trying to dismantle the health care law.

Once again seeing the chance to turn a deadline into a debacle, conservative House Republicans amended the continuing resolution so that it defunded the health care law. Because the Democrat-controlled Senate will remove that amendment, the continuing resolution won’t be passed until one side yields.

House Majority Leader, Republican John Boehner opposes a shutdown but appears to have little control over his caucus. AAP

Will someone yield, or will the government shut down?

Anyone who has followed American politics over the past few years has learned not to make predictions about what Congress will do. A core group of conservative House Republicans has stopped acting in concert with their party leaders, leaving House Majority Leader John Boehner with little control over his caucus. While Boehner doesn’t want a government shutdown, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to wrangle enough Republican votes to prevent it.

That said, there are reasons to be hopeful the government won’t shut down, at least not on October 1. First, the shutdown is immensely unpopular. Eight out of ten Americans disapprove of even the threat of a government shutdown during budget negotiations.

Second, agreeing to a short continuing resolution – one that expires in a month or two – allows Republicans to have this fight all over again. And they do love the fight. Senate Republican Ted Cruz just spent 21 hours on the floor pretending to filibuster the continuing resolution, even though he’d missed the deadline and the vote would proceed as scheduled.

Third, passing the continuing resolution allows Republicans to move on to the next big crisis. On October 17, the U.S. has to raise its debt-limit again or go into a catastrophic default. The House Republicans have already turned their attention to that fight, offering to raise the debt limit in exchange for the one-year delay on the health care bill. Plus the draconian Paul Ryan budget. Plus the Keystone XL pipeline and more oil drilling, a repeal of block grants for social security, a suspension of EPA carbon regulations, pension cuts for federal employees, and more.

That seems excessive.

Doesn’t it? As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post put it, the GOP plan “isn’t a serious governing document. It’s not even a plausible opening bid. It’s a cry for help.”

Wasn’t 2013 supposed to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform?

Turns out the conservative base wanted nothing to do with immigration reform. When Tea Party favourite Marco Rubio fought for immigration reform earlier this year, he saw his favourability rating among Republicans plummet, and House Republicans vowed to ignore the Senate bill. So this is what Congress will be doing instead. A year that began with sequestration, a policy backstop put in place because it was so awful no one thought Congress would let it stand, will end with more of the same.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email

    The US seems to be spiralling into ever crazier territory, in every way, at every opportunity.

    1. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to John Crest

      It's in our DNA John, and if we don't soon stop spiral_ling'uistically as is our wascally w_ont'ogenetic, then we're all -- at very b_est'imate -- but destined to go to hel_ices in a hand basket...p_un'til ha_des'uetudinal freezes over.

      It's cold comfort for one feeling so hot p_un'der the coll_ar'gumentative I know, but it's the best we can do_gmatize at pre_sent'ential.!

  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article.
    Nicole Hemmer; "Wasn’t 2013 supposed to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform?" That was the story.
    Reform of immigration policies are a contradiction when the countries economy has a baseline of migrants. A baseline fitting the neoliberal model and US politics are driven by neoliberalism. Both parties arguing semantics of weasel words around policy publicly, while following the same trajectory of corporate welfare. Creating a smokescreen to cover austerity, a core neoliberal agenda and public policy failure in this era in every country. The minority Tea Party worldview blinded to the incestious relationship beteween governement and corporations. Failing to see the corporate link to government debt ratio for the smoke.

    1. Nicole Hemmer

      Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Miami & Research Associate at University of Sydney

      In reply to Peter Turner

      He was impeached, but not convicted. The House votes on articles of impeachment, which is how formal charges are brought against officeholders. Two articles of impeachment passed the House (two others failed). Then there is a trial, in which the Senate votes to acquit or convict, with conviction resulting in removal from office. A two-thirds majority is necessary to convict (a good thing, since there were 55 Republicans in the Senate at the time). Fifty voted for conviction on one charge, 45 on the other.

      Only one other President, Andrew Johnson, has been impeached. He wasn't convicted, either. Nixon resigned before the House could vote on articles of impeachment.

    2. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Peter Turner

      It's otherwise known as a L_imp'eachment Peter. It's the impeachment you have when you're not having a W_imp'eachment.

  3. Jeffrey Weissel


    About the House Republican's 40 unsuccessful efforts (so far) to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act: Recall Einstein's definition of insanity "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

    1. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Jeffrey Weissel

      Albert's definition of insanity came about from his decided dislike of having to go to work every day at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property....right u'p_un'til those same old familiar feelings of ing[ennui]ty started becoming patently obvious to him.

    2. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Allan Gardiner


      I share Einstein's sense of ennui regarding the worker-treadmill, unfortunately for yours truly, I do not share his genuis "ing[ennui]ty". Such is my lot.

      As for topic - this also is a treadmill of the far-right's engineering. I fear for the type of spanner needed to put a halt to this form of treason.

    3. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Diana, in a w_ord'onnance`d, perhaps one's l_ot'herwise-interpreted could soon sp_ in'vent deft and dastardly device worthy of thwart_ing'eniously such felonious fabrications, for there's always an h_alt'ernative close to hand_spanner.

      As for poor Albert's l_ot'iose and the dreadful drudgery he had to endure whilst at the patent office, he soon became so bored to tears that he then felt there was nothing left for him but to tear himself away in haste, almost at the speed of p_light in fact, rather than deciding to just lachry_mose'y along at a far more leisurely pa_ce'ding.

  4. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    President Obama's "grass roots campaign" offers a peaceful way of resolve.

    But after the Impeachment and 'BlowGate' (as Americans love to call it) and after Republican filibuster Ted Cruz, there is a point at which
    the 1917 United States Patriot Act kicks in;
    to stop republicans (or any party) from 'toying' with or making a mockery of the role of government, which is Constitutionally to serve?
    Shut down is a form of 'Treachery'

    Under the US Presidential system President Obama got a majority…

    Read more
  5. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    another title for this could be 're-arranging the deck-chairs on Trillion Dollar Titanic' ... how do you deal with a schizophrenic?

  6. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.


    The senate has passed an emergency funding measurer to carry through until 15 Nov the house vote is pending. I am hoping that the GOP stand strong and give no quarter and close it down forever. Hollywood has failed to produce a decent movie for ages, the thought of clash of titans, on one side the militarized police contractors and the National Guard on the other the well armed citizens.Realism coming in by live feed, why delay the inevitable.Facetiousness intended.

  7. Stephen H

    In a contemplative fashion...

    So how is it that members of Congress (i.e. the people responsible for the mess) still get paid? If you claim to stand by your convictions (as opposed to merely grandstanding), then they should have at least SOME impact on you.

    1. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Stephen H

      because they are politicians. Do as I say, not as I do. They wrote the legislation so as to ensure their benefit, very much like superannuation for our pollies.

    2. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Stephen H

      Members of Congress will never bravely brook their having to personally suffer any $cr_imp'act.

  8. Ben Cooling

    Web Developer & Programmer

    Can I venture to guess that the "group of conservative House Republicans" being needlessly obstructive would have something to do with Obama's record of increasing national debt to a world leading $16+ trillion while funnelling all economic gains under he's stewardship to the top 1% earners? Surely this group is warranted in offering a robust opposition to more government regulation of an economy that Obama already has a woeful record on?

    We also have these same House Republicans to thank for the fact we don't have World War 3 breaking out now over Syria. Their vocal opposition to the propaganda of Obama & Kerry is all that stood between the US bombing of yet another sovereign nation under dubious US intel.

    I for one am happy for any group to offer an opposing viewpoint to the prevailing hegemony of the two major political parties and the group of House Republicans in my humble opinion deserve a lot more credit than to be painted as opportunist obstructionists.

    1. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Ben Cooling

      Ben, given that "he's" going to have to "own" up to myriad misdeeds one day anyway, it might be far more diplomatic at present to just perceive all cited economic gains as being funnelled under *his* stewardship...lest Obama begin thinking that "he's" being pursued by the devil possessive..err..possessed.

      Now that I'm on "his" case, as "he's" probably well aware, I'm not worrying at all about Obama in the very le_ast' I do believe it'll only be a short amount of time now before *he's* seen to get *his*.

    2. Shannon Conroy

      Manager at FMCG

      In reply to Ben Cooling

      That's right Ben.

      The republicans are purely trying to force some restraint onto the Obama Administration, who since 2008 has added $6.5 Trillion in his 5 years. Quite sobering really, and if you were to follow the MSM in the USA (bar one well known outlet) you would be fed the "nothing to see here folks!" Line.

      All that spending and the USA has absolutely nothing to show for it, not even extra school halls. Except for an even larger and more bloated government.

      According to the Census Bureau’s…

      Read more
    3. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Shannon Conroy

      who really cares .... every country silly enough to buy Peter Foster's err American currency or 'finds love in Nigeria' deserves what they get ... its just greedy bastards being hoodwinked by even greedier bastards

      the ultimate 'chain-letter' currency, ponzi pyramid scheme ever.

  9. ian cheong

    logged in via email

    Good job Nicole. So who's betting on how long the shutdown will last?