How to Shut Down a Government

March 31st, 2011, by

U.S. Captiol
Photo by: Kevin McCoy | Wikimedia Commons

Government shutdown. The term sounds so binding. So grave. So…not specific enough for me.

How does one go about shutting down the federal government? And what does that mean for the American people? You know, the folks the government actually serve.

You’d be hard pressed to get a straight answer from any government agency about its plans should Congress be unable to get its budgetary act together by April 8th.

So, I talked to Stan Collender, federal budget expert, partner at Qorvis Communications and writer for Capital Gains and Games, to get to the bottom of this political mess.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

THOMPSON: When we say government shutdown, what do we actually mean?

COLLENDER: Like what happened in ’95 and ’96 — if the government doesn’t operate. Unless laws are passed providing permission for it to spend money, that is, to pay salaries and those types of things. Typically that happens with annual appropriations. This year, we’re operating under a short-term funding bill called a continuing resolution, and what happens is that Congress and the president fail to extend the continuing resolution. If they allow it to expire, they fight over it, whatever, in this case, it could be all of the above, then the agencies literally won’t have the legal permission to spend any money. And, under those circumstances, a variety of activities have to stop. And that’s what we mean by a government shutdown.

THOMPSON: How would that impact everyday Americans?

COLLENDER: It doesn’t mean that every activity will shut down. For example, Social Security checks will still go out. But, those activities that are funded with annual appropriations…the president will have to make a decision about what will continue and what won’t.

By Monday [April 11], when the government is supposed to open its doors for business, you wouldn’t be able to apply for a passport or a visa. And even intake on some programs like Veterans benefits might be affected.

Federal courts. Obviously, we wouldn’t be letting prisoners out of federal jails, but if you had a trial or you were supposed to be a witness or on a jury in a federal court, that is probably going to be shut down.

If you’re a government contractor or if you work for a government contractor or you own a coffee shop across the street from a government contractor where there are a lot of federal employees, you might find that you’re affected as well, because contractors would discover that there would be no one in the government agencies to pay their invoices or to process their proposals or accept anything on the loading docks. So, there are a lot of things that people don’t even realize they rely on the federal government for.

THOMPSON: How might this be different from the previous shutdown?

COLLENDER: You’ve got more intense politics with a larger deficit. It’s kind of a witches’ brew of political unease, and we’re really not sure where it’s going to turn out.

I think John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is in a very difficult position. On the one hand, I’m sure he’d like to compromise. That’s what Newt Gingrich did, and that’s eventually what stopped them from continuing back in ’95 and ’96.

It doesn’t look like Boehner has that kind of permission from the other Republicans in the caucus. So if he cuts a deal with the White House…and Senate Democrats, then he might find that his speakership is in jeopardy because the Tea Party folks are so angry with him.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t compromise, he keeps the Tea Party wing of the party in place supporting him and what else the Republicans want to do…

THOMPSON: So, you think the government shutdown is going to happen?

COLLENDER: Yes. I think it’s going to happen.

Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm