On Friday, President Donald Trump said he would keep the United States federal government “closed for a very long period of time, months or even years” if he did not get $5.6 billion to build a wall along the country’s southern border. The threat came after an inconclusive meeting with Democratic leaders Friday — and while backroom negotiations for a deal continued, with both the House and Senate adjourned until Tuesday, it seemed likely the government would remain partly shuttered at least until then.
The federal government partially shut down on December 22. The shutdown looked in line to surpass in length on Monday the shutdown of 2013. And if it were to last beyond January 12, it would be the longest shutdown in United States history. Why and under what circumstances does the US government “shut down”? What happens then?
What and Why
In the US, the government shuts down if Congress does not pass “appropriation bills” (appropriating federal funds to government departments, agencies, programmes) or “continuing resolutions” (appropriations legislation allowing funding on a formula based on the previous year’s funding), or if the President fails to sign such bills or resolutions into law. The consequence is that certain parts of the government shut down, staff that are deemed “non-essential” are furloughed or sent on temporary unpaid leave, and only “essential” staff, such as those who deal with national security or public safety, continue to work. Unpaid workers receive pay retroactively after the shutdown ends.
Shutdowns occur the most frequently when Congress and the President take stands that are mutually hostile.
This particular shutdown was triggered after Trump was refused funding for his border wall. Democrats who have just taken control of the House of Representatives after eight years, have taken a tough line — going from a reported concession of about $1.6 billion in December to nothing at all now.
Trump himself has vowed repeatedly that the wall was important enough for him to keep the government shut. In the middle of December, with a shutdown looming, he had said, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security… I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you (Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer) for it.” On Friday, he repeated, “I’m very proud of doing what I’m doing. I don’t call it a shutdown. I call it ‘doing what you have to do for the benefit and for the safety of our country’.”
Trump also threatened to “call a national emergency and build it (the wall) very quickly”, even though the legality of such a step is uncertain.
There are no official figures on how many workers have been furloughed. Estimates of impact agreed on around 800,000 workers in 2013, and reports in January too, have mentioned similar numbers. A January 2 report in The New York Times said “less than half [of the 800,000 impacted] are on unpaid leave, while more than half are working without pay”. Also, the report said, “those who work can expect compensation after the funding is restored, but furloughed workers have no such guarantee”.
As of the weekend, essential work like mail delivery and law enforcement was being performed, but operations in nine federal government departments, including Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Treasury had been hit. Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA had been impacted.