TFK Explains: The Government Shutdown

February 2, 2018
BACK TO BUSINESS? At the U.S. Capitol on January 21, lawmakers work to reopen the government.
DREW ANGERER—GETTY IMAGES

On January 20, the United States government shut down for three days. Why? Here, TFK explains.

What is a shutdown?

A government shutdown happens when Congress cannot come together to approve a federal budget. Some functions of the U.S. government close until lawmakers can agree.

What happens when the government shuts down?

Only services deemed nonessential are shut down. Some federal workers are furloughed, which means they are sent home and their pay is docked. (They can later be paid for this time off.) These jobs can include working at national parks or monuments, processing passports, and maintaining government websites. Essential services, like the military, continue. Government offices related to national security and law enforcement stay open, as do post offices. But workers are not paid. “All of these people will be working for nothing, which is simply not fair,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters before the shutdown began. In 2013, during the last shutdown, 850,000 executive-branch employees were furloughed.

Why couldn’t Congress agree on a budget?

A key sticking point between Republicans and Democrats is disagreement over immigration. Democrats wanted the spending bill to include protections for immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. In September, President Donald Trump announced that he would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. It shields about 700,000 Dreamers from being deported. The program is set to expire on March 5.

How was the disagreement resolved?

On January 22, Congress voted to pass a short-term spending bill. The bill passed 81–18 in the Senate. The House voted 266–150. Trump signed the bill that reopened the government later that day. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers returned to their jobs. The bill will keep the government open until February 8. In return, Republicans have promised to restart discussions about the future of the Dreamers.

Has the government shut down before?

Yes. There have been 12 shutdowns since 1981. They lasted from one day to 21 days. The shutdown in 2013 lasted 16 days. This shutdown lasted just 69 hours.

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