Legislative 101Tax & Budget

What Happens if Republicans Shut Down the Government?

Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House. And yet, their inability to govern risks a government shutdown this month. This document explains why a government shutdown happens and what follows when they do.

First, a few pieces of DC jargon defined:

“CR”: A continuing resolution, this is government-on-autopilot, or a temporary band-aid. It continues current funding levels for a duration of time (usually short, sometimes only a few days or weeks) set by Congress.

“Omnibus”: This is a set of twelve funding bills, which Congress is supposed to pass every year, rolled into one giant funding bill. This funding typically lasts a year.

“CRomnibus”: This is a combination of the two. In a “CRomnibus,” some government departments have their funding extended for a year, and some departments have their funding extended only for a short term on auto-pilot. Congress used this approach in 2015.

Why do government shutdowns happen?

Congress has to fund the government on an annual basis. When they fail to do that, they pass a “CR” until they are able to pass an annual funding bill. If funding expires, the government shuts down. Why does that happen? Most often, it’s because the House and Senate, or Congress and the White House, can’t agree on legislation that funds the government moving forward. Previous shutdowns have occurred when opposite parties controlled at least one chamber of Congress and the White House. Right now, Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House -- so keeping the government open should be a basic function they can carry out. Government shutdowns can be avoided by passing a CR, an omnibus, or a combination of the two (a “CRomnibus”).

What happens during a shutdown?

When there is no law authorizing funding, government agencies have to stop operating (except in certain cases) in order to comply with a law called the Antideficiency Act. Some government operations continue, however. For example, Social Security payments continue, because they are funded as an earned benefit and not through annual funding bills.

Examples of government functions that STOP during a shutdown:

  • Federal employees generally do not report to work
  • The National Institutes of Health stop accepting new patients
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stop surveilling diseases
  • National Parks close
  • Applications for visas and passports are not processed
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) stops operating in certain states
  • Some Head Start programs close

In addition, a shutdown poses a national security threat, as an unforeseen crisis may require a response from an agency that is partially or fully shut down. Further, there is a perceived weakness or vulnerability from a foreign policy perspective when the US government is “shut down.”

What’s going to happen this time?

The government is currently funded through a “continuing resolution” that Congress passed in September. That CR funding expires December 8. Some Republicans in the House want to pass a CR before December 8 that funds the government for three weeks, until December 30. Republicans in the Senate want to pass an even shorter CR that goes only two weeks, until December 22. It is unclear how they will resolve this impasse. But what is clear is that Republicans control government -- and keeping it open is their obligation. If they can’t pass a CR in enough time to avoid a shutdown, it will be the Republicans’ responsibility.

For more information, check out this Congressional Research Service report on government shutdowns.