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Lesson Plans

Need-to-Know: Government Shutdown!

September 30, 2013

Full Lesson



Political negotiations over the government’s budget in Washington, D.C., are at a standstill, with Republicans in Congress threatening to shut down the government unless President Barack Obama agrees to defund the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare”.

But what exactly is a government shutdown and how does it happen? Here’s your need-to-know guide.

A government shutdown happens when the government’s budget for day-to-day operations expires, and the President and Congress have not yet agreed on a way to continue funding.

If they can’t agree on a budget, they can pass a continuing resolution, which is a temporary measure that continues funding the government at normal levels. As Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post put it, a continuing resolution says to the federal government, “Keep on spending like you’ve been spending till we can actually come to some agreement on how much you should be spending.”

This graphic from the National Priorities Project breaks down the budget passage process as much as possible:


via National Priorities Project

This time around, the continuing resolution that has been funding the government since March 28 expires on September 30. If the President and Congress can’t agree on what to do, the government will shut down.

Currently, the disagreement on the budget is over the Affordable Care Act. Some Republicans in Congress say that will not vote for any budget unless the President signs a bill that defunds the ACA, something he would never do.

Has this happened before?

Yes, the government has shut down before, most recently in 1995 and 1996 when President Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich could not reach an agreement on funding to social services.

What happens during a government shutdown?

When the government shuts down, all “non-essential” federal employees have to stay home, national parks, museums and monuments close, and anyone relying on government services like unemployment and veteran’s benefits or government loans could see their payments delayed or cut.

But not everyone has to stay home. The president, Congress, FAA air traffic controllers and employees, “deemed to perform emergency work involving saving lives or protecting property, including military service, law enforcement, or direct provision of medical care,” continue to work.

For more on the shutdown, watch this segment from the PBS NewsHour.