published : 2023-09-29

4 Key Things You Need to Know About Government Shutdowns

Shrinking the List of Federal Responsibilities Would Make the Country Less Vulnerable to Congressional Dysfunction

An image of government officials engaged in tense negotiations over funding the federal government. [Taken with Nikon D850]

With the nation’s capital fixated on tense negotiations over funding the federal government, apocalyptic warnings over a possible shutdown are filling headlines.

But for the 99% of Americans who live far from the swamp, it’s not always clear how a government shutdown would affect day-to-day life.

Here are some important points about how shutdowns work – and how Washington makes them worse.

Even if there is a funding lapse, federal activities (and employees) deemed 'essential' will continue to draw from the national treasury.

Examples include national security, border patrol, law enforcement, disaster response and more.

In addition, funding for many benefits (such as Social Security) along with some agencies (such as the Postal Service) are independent of the annual spending process.

A lapse of under two weeks would have even less effect since federal employees would get their paychecks on time.

However, longer shutdowns are typically coupled with providing back pay to bureaucrats and congressional staffers.

Accordingly, the real-world effect of a shutdown would be much less than the apocalyptic rhetoric that often characterizes press coverage of the issue.

Shutdowns reflect bloated government and failure to budget.

A photo of a peaceful American suburban neighborhood far from the political swamp, representing the 99% of Americans who may be unclear about the impact of a government shutdown on their daily lives. [Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV]

The federal government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30.

If Congress fails to pass the annual set of spending bills (referred to as appropriations) by the end of September, the government’s ability to spend becomes limited due to important legal safeguards against executive agencies spending without legislative approval.

In theory, the annual budget process looks like this:

Of course, it seldom works that way.

Congress hasn’t completed the process on time since 1997.

With Republicans and Democrats divided over the proper size and scope of the federal government, negotiations over both overall spending levels and item-by-item authorizations usually drag out well past the Sept. 30 deadline.

However, the spending process is difficult to complete on time even when one party controls both Congress and the White House.

The unchecked growth of the federal government means legislators haggle over core priorities such as national defense – and special-interest handouts such as maple syrup subsidies.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have no interest in making the process go smoother by putting Uncle Sam on a diet.

A classic example of the swamp in action is what’s referred to as 'Washington Monument Syndrome,' where a government will make a spending cut or funding lapse as painful as possible by closing down low-cost, highly symbolic things.

A striking image of the Washington Monument, symbolizing the potential closure of low-cost, highly symbolic public facilities during a government shutdown. [Taken with Sony a7R III]

While there’s no indication as to how Biden plans to handle a potential government shutdown, the administration’s radical approach to issue after issue doesn’t bode well.

Many things the federal government manages are important and necessary.

However, some of these (such as the air traffic control system and infrastructure programs) can and should be devolved to state and local governments, civil society and private entities.

Shrinking the endless list of federal responsibilities would make the country less vulnerable to congressional dysfunction.

Also, in most cases, pulling these activities from the swamp would yield budgetary savings.

With the national debt at $33.1 trillion due in large part to rampant waste and fraud, unloading federal liabilities is long overdue.

House Republicans have put forward spending bills and a budget resolution that would move things in the right direction, and there is debate within the GOP caucus over whether to make the legislation even stronger.

Following a wildly destructive spending spree that has pushed the country down the road to bankruptcy and hyper-inflation, that’s a debate worth having.

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