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What Actually Shuts Down During a U.S. Government Shutdown

Talk of a U.S. government shutdown is again in the air. Funding for the vast menu of federal activities, foreign and domestic, is due to run out after Dec. 8, and Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress are negotiating a spending bill to carry beyond that date. Without a deal, the U.S. will encounter what’s officially called a "spending gap," which triggers a carefully prescribed, but still disruptive, halt to Washington’s work.

1. Why might the government shut down after Dec. 8?

Since Oct. 1, when the 2018 fiscal year began, the U.S. has been operating on temporary funding provided by a "continuing resolution" passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump. It runs through Dec. 8, and leaders in Congress are negotiating an extension. At the same time, they’re juggling demands from various factions in both parties to stabilize insurance markets, extend a program to protect from deportation some young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and raise budget caps for defense spending.

2. What happens during a shutdown?

Many, though not all, federal government functions are frozen, and many federal employees are furloughed. Agencies in the executive branch, the one with the largest workforce and budget, regularly review shutdown plans that spell out what work must continue, and how many employees will be retained, during a "short" lapse (one to five days) and during one that lasts longer.

3. Which government functions cease?

The ones that invariably draw headlines during a shutdown are closures of national parks and monuments and the Smithsonian museums in Washington. Other activities that generally stop, at least if the shutdown lasts more than a couple days, are processing of applications for passports and visas; new enrollments in experimental treatments under the National Institutes for Health; and the maintenance of U.S. government websites, including ones with data used by businesses and researchers.

4. Which government functions continue?

Activities related to national security (like the military services), safety and order (air traffic control, law enforcement) and medical care (veterans’ hospitals) are among the essential activities that carry on. So does the U.S. mail, since the Postal Service has its own funding stream. Social Security checks and food stamps continue to be distributed. The president is among the executive-branch employees specifically allowed to keep working. The federal court system and Congress also generally continue to function normally.

5. How many federal employees stay home?

In the 2013 shutdown, the number of executive-branch employees who were furloughed peaked at 850,000, or about 40 percent of the workforce.

6. Do federal employees get paid?

Eventually. When a shutdown happens, most federal employees -- there are about 2.8 million of them now -- are placed on unpaid furlough. Though there "appears to be no guarantee" that they will eventually be paid, in practice they always have been, retroactively, via legislation passed by Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service.

7. How often does this happen?

There have been 12 since 1981, ranging in duration from a single day to 21 days, according to the Congressional Research Service. The last one was a 16-day shutdown in 2013. The 21-day one, in December 1995 and January 1996, was a famous budget showdown that pitted President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and the Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

8. What happened prior to 1981?

Before 1981, "funding gaps" didn’t result in shutdowns; agencies operated mostly as normal, and their expenses were covered retroactively once a deal was reached. Benjamin Civiletti, attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, put an end to that. With legal opinions issued in 1980 and 1981, he established that government work generally must cease until Congress agrees to pay for it. His rulings were codified in the Antideficiency Act, which, in theory at least, authorizes fines or prison terms to federal employees who dare work for free during a shutdown.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Washington Post reviews every government shutdown prior to 2013.
  • The Congressional Research Service’s report on shutdowns.
  • Nobody wins if the government shuts down, writes Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein.