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Lessons from the last time the government shut down

Congress appears headed towards a government shutdown, a political crisis that would have a ripple effect on the economy and millions of federal workers. It would also impact national parks, passport applications, and many other services and activities that Americans take for granted.

The shutdown could still be avoided. The House passed a stopgap spending bill Thursday night that would keep the government funded through Feb. 16. But as of Friday morning, the Senate still appeared short of the votes needed to pass the measure. If the Senate can’t strike a deal, the shutdown will go into effect at midnight.

But what exactly happens when the government shuts down? And who are the political winners and losers? A look at the last time this happened, in 2013, provides some helpful answers about the mechanics and politics at play.

What was the 2013 government shutdown about?

House Republicans engineered a showdown over the Affordable Care Act, insisting that a spending bill to avoid a shutdown include measures to roll back key parts of then-President Barack Obama’s health care law. The Republican-controlled House passed two spending bills with amendments aimed at crippling the law: one that would have repealed the medical device tax, and another that would have delayed the implementation of the ACA by a year.

The Senate, which was controlled by Democrats, rejected both measures. Senate Democrats and Obama insisted on passing a “clean” spending bill without any divisive policy riders. Their position forced forced House Republicans — and their allies in the Senate, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — to choose between funding the government or shutting it down over their opposition to Obamacare. They chose a shutdown.

When did it start and how long did it last?

The shutdown went into effect on Oct. 1, 2013, the first day of the new fiscal year. It lasted for 16 days, until Congress passed a spending bill that ended the shutdown.

Did the entire government shutdown?

No. The term shutdown is confusing, because federal agencies that are deemed “essential” remain open. That’s what happened in 2013 (and what would happen again now). The list of essential departments and workers includes the Transportation Security Administration, which continued to screen baggage; the U.S. Postal Service, which continued delivering mail; air traffic controllers; emergency and disaster relief officials; border patrol agents, and most other law enforcement officials.

What parts of the government stopped functioning?

“Non-essential” federal agencies and workers. National parks across the country closed, as did national museums and zoos. The Small Business Administration stopped processing most new loans, as did the Federal Housing Administration, which delayed mortgage applications. The Labor Department shut down; it continued making unemployment payments, but other functions were put on pause, like workplace safety inspections by the departments’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And numerous other services across federal agencies were delayed, because hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed.

How many workers were furloughed?

Estimates varied. But somewhere between 800,000 and 850,000 members of the government’s 3.3 million workforce were furloughed. The agencies with the most furloughs were NASA, the Housing and Urban Development and Education departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which sent more than 90 percent of their workers home. Furloughed workers were not paid during the time of the shutdown, but were later paid in full.

How much did this cost the economy?

The U.S. economy lost $24 billion as a result of the shutdown, according to an analysis by the financial services company Standard and Poor’s. According to an estimate by the Council of Economic Advisers, up to 120,000 new private sector jobs were lost as well.

Why did it end?

After two weeks, House Republicans bowed to Obama and Senate Democrats’ demands that Congress pass a spending bill without major changes to the health care law. The shutdown ended after midnight on Oct. 17, 2013, when Obama signed a short-term spending bill to reopen the government.

Who won and who lost?

The shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans. Polls at the time showed that Americans thought Republicans were more to blame for the crisis than Democrats. A USA Today/Princeton Survey Research poll found that 39 percent of Americans blamed the GOP, compared to just 19 percent who blamed the Democratic Party (36 percent laid the blame equally on both parties).

One Republican lawmaker may have gained politically by the shutdown, however. Cruz was one of the most vocal supporters of a shutdown, at one point staging a 21-hour anti-Obamacare speechathon on the Senate floor. The effort angered Cruz’s GOP colleagues, but it raised his national name recognition with conservative voters, helping lay the foundation for his future presidential bid in 2016.