What to know about a potential government shutdown – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Could the government shut down next week, for the third time in three years? It’s a possibility as Congress nears a deadline to keep the government open and doesn’t appear to have enough votes to do it. Here’s why, and what would happen if there is a shut down.

What is a government shutdown?

It’s what happens when Congress fails to enact the annual spending bills on time and government agencies run out of money to pay their employees and perform duties for the American people.

Congress approves money for most of the federal government to operate – that’s the “power of the purse” they were given in the Constitution. The federal government can only perform many of its functions – like food-safety inspections or tax refunds – when Congress has authorized money for it to do so.

The fiscal year for the government ends Sept. 30, which means Congress needs to approve new government funds by then or the government will shut down.

So will there be a government shutdown?


The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to keep the government open through November, but all Republicans voted against it. We expect most Senate Republicans to vote against this spending bill in the Senate when it comes up for a procedural vote on Monday, just a few days before a deadline that would trigger a shutdown. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has said he will filibuster this spending bill, which requires 60 votes to overcome.

The Senate is split 50-50, and there aren’t 10 Republicans who will support the funding bill that Senate Democrats plan to vote on in the coming days. The White House told federal agencies on Thursday to begin preparing for a shutdown.

Publicly, Democrats say they are staying the course, but privately, The Post reports, they are acknowledging they won’t win over any Republicans and are discussing ways to sidestep them to keep the government funded. Democratic aides and lawmakers insist there will not be a shutdown amid the pandemic.

They only have a few days to figure out how to do that.

What does a government shutdown have to do with the debt ceiling?

This shutdown threat is all about the debt ceiling.

At the same time that the government needs new funds to stay open, the government also needs Congress to approve the Treasury Department borrowing more money to pay its bills. (The government spends more than it takes in.) If Congress doesn’t approve that by mid-October, the U.S. could default on its loans for the first time ever.

Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refuse to vote to raise the debt limit. They argue that because Democrats are also trying to pass a huge, $3.5 trillion bill to dramatically reshape how federal government works (there are several spending bills moving through Congress at the moment), Democrats should raise the debt ceiling on their own.

It’s an extraordinary position, given the debt ceiling is normally a bipartisan vote and raising it today pays for spending from yesterday, including trillions added to the national debt by Republicans under former president Donald Trump.

“This is about fulfilling the fiscal responsibilities that the U.S. has already occurred, and to say that they think Democrats should do that by themselves is a pretty remarkable move,” said Molly Reynolds, a budget analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The stakes are huge if the U.S. defaults and shuts down around the same time. It could plunge the U.S. into an immediate recession and cost Americans billions in wealth and millions of jobs and take years, if not a generation, to recover from – all at a time when America’s economy is still shaky as the pandemic drags on.

To try to get Senate Republicans to back down, Democrats have tied the debt ceiling vote into a spending bill, which also includes billions for hurricane and other natural disaster relief.

But Republicans aren’t budging. “You think I’m bluffing?” McConnell said last week when Punchbowl News brought up Democrats’ argument that raising the debt ceiling today pays for spending in the Trump era.

What happens when there’s a shutdown?

Many federal agencies don’t have money to do much of their regular programming. That manifests in a variety of ways, like:

Many federal employees would be furloughed, meaning they don’t go to work and their pay is suspended. Government employees have drained their savings in past shut downs to stay afloat.

Law enforcement, national security officials and the military would still likely work, but they wouldn’t get paid. Same with air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Agency officials screening passengers at airports. But after the last shutdown under former president Donald Trump, Congress passed a law that automatically guarantees backpay for federal workers once the government is up and running again.

It will be difficult to do any number of things that require the federal government, like process home or small-business loan applications, apply for a passport and conduct immigration court proceedings. Depending how long this goes on, the federal safety net – like food stamps and free lunches in schools and even Social Security checks – could be affected.

Food safety inspections could stop.

There will also be untold and perhaps unknown ramifications, like roads that don’t get fixed because the Department of Transportation had to pause to work on a shutdown plan, or what federally funded study on cancer cures has to stop, or what common, dangerous baby gear doesn’t get recalled?

In the event of a shutdown, presidents can make some decisions about what is deemed essential for national health and safety and keep those programs going. That can lead to some inherently political decisions. During the shutdown under Trump, a number of experts accused agencies of make decisions about what was “essential” that seemed geared toward appeasing Republican-leaning voters, like how hunters could still use public land. There’s a law that is supposed to protect against overtly political decisions about what stays open, but no one’s been prosecuted under it. Plus it’s hard to enforce if the government is shut down.

This shut down in particular could be far-reaching. In the past, shutdowns have only affected some agencies because Congress had already approved funding for other agencies. But this shutdown would be a full one, because Congress hasn’t passed any funding bills. (Although some federal agencies, like the Post Office, operate independent of congressional funding. So you would still get your mail.)

“It would really affect all agencies in some way,” Reynolds said. “It would be very disruptive to federal programs and people’s lives. And there are big financial and economic costs to shut downs. So it is not a good way to make fiscal policy.”

How would a government shutdown affect its covid response?

We don’t know, in part because there’s never been a government shutdown during a pandemic. It’s likely Biden would prioritize government functions tied to covid response, and deem those workers essential.

But even if a shut down doesn’t bring to a screeching halt the government’s efforts to stem the spread of covid, lift up people economically and get more people vaccinated, it will complicate them in a way that could cost lives. All aspects of government are more difficult to operate when there’s a shut down.

“The worst time in the world we want to shut down the government is in the middle of a pandemic where we have 140,000 people a day getting infected and 2,000 people a day dying,” Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, told The Washington Post.

What happened last time the government shutdown?

The government shut down for 35 days over the holidays from December 2018 – January 2019. It was the longest shut down in U.S. history. Democrats were taking over the majority in the House of Representatives after the midterm elections in 2018, when Trump declared he wasn’t signing a bipartisan short-term spending bill because it didn’t have money for his border wall.

Democrats refused to provide the money for that. After hundreds of flights were grounded as air traffic controllers began calling in sick as a strike against working without being paid, Trump relented and signed a spending bill without his demands.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the shutdown cost about $3 billion in economic activity. Some businesses “will never recoup” their lost income, the CBO reported. A majority of Americans blamed Trump and Republicans in Congress for that shutdown.

Copyright: (c) 2021, The Washington Post