The U.S. government has entered a partial shutdown as Congress missed a midnight deadline to pass spending legislation. Although the lapse may last only a few hours (lawmakers plan votes Friday morning), it’s worth recapping: What doors actually close when a government shuts down?
1. What does a shutdown mean?
It means many, though not all, federal government functions are suspended, and many, though not all, federal employees are furloughed. Services that the government deems "essential," such as those related to law enforcement and public safety, continue. But defining "essential" is more art than science, with individual government departments -- and the political appointees who run them -- having a say over who comes to work and who stays home. In theory at least, a federal employee who works during a shutdown, but isn’t supposed to, could face fines or a prison term under what’s called the Antideficiency Act.
2. What government services would cease?
The ones that draw headlines are those that produce closures of national park facilities and the Smithsonian museums in Washington and delays in processing applications for passports and visas. Economic reports from the Labor and Commerce departments could be delayed, depending on how long a shutdown lasts. Tax audits, oversight of financial swap markets and investigations of workplace civil-rights complaints are among activities expected to stop.
3. Which government functions would be unaffected?
Military operations, air traffic control, medical care of veterans and federal criminal investigations -- including a certain probe of the president’s inner circle -- are among the essential activities that will go on. The U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Federal Reserve have their own funding streams so will also be largely unaffected.
4. Would there be harm to the U.S. economy?
It depends on how long a shutdown lasts. Based on past shutdowns, something lasting a few days to a week is unlikely to have a sizable impact. A shutdown of several weeks could shave a few tenths of a percentage point from gross domestic product growth in a given quarter. Bloomberg economists estimate that a government shutdown that lasted two and a half weeks in 2013 subtracted 0.30 percentage point from quarterly GDP.
5. How many times has this happened?
There have been 13 shutdowns since 1981, including for three days in January. They’ve ranged in duration from a single day to 21 days, according to the Congressional Research Service. (Before 1981, agencies operated mostly as normal during funding gaps, their expenses covered retroactively once a deal was reached.) Shutdowns over spending disagreements are different (and less grave) than what would happen if the U.S. breached its debt ceiling and defaulted on some of its obligations. That’s never happened.
The Reference Shelf
- Congress lists all votes on appropriations for the 2018 fiscal year.
- The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget tracks the budget through its Appropriations Watch.
- A 2015 report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress examines the economic costs of shutdowns.
- A Congressional Research Service report on economic effects of the 2013 shutdown.
— With assistance by Paula Dwyer, Lisa Beyer, Anne Cronin, and Christopher Flavelle