Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

Q&A: Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns

Sep 24, 2013 | Budget Process

Congress faces a number of looming fiscal crises this fall, and the first obstacle is just around the corner -- if lawmakers fail to pass legislation to fund federal programs before September 30, the government will shut down.  Today, CRFB released a new Q&A for understanding government shutdowns and related issues, including continuing resolutions and the federal appropriations process.  This new resource also provides a historical and legislative background to the upcoming fiscal debates.

A few of the questions we answer are summarized below. Click here to read the full Q&A.

What is a government shutdown?

Many federal government agencies and programs rely on annual funding appropriations made by Congress. Since the government’s fiscal year starts on October 1, a government shutdown will occur if Congress has not passed appropriations bills for next fiscal year by September 30. In a “shutdown,” federal agencies must discontinue all non-essential discretionary functions until new funding legislation is passed and signed into law. Essential services continue to function, as do mandatory spending programs.

What services are affected in a shutdown and how?

Each federal agency develops its own shutdown plan, following guidance from previous cases and coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The plan identifies which government activities may not continue until appropriations are restored, requiring furloughs and the halting of many agency activities. However, “essential services” – mainly those related to public safety – continue to receive funding. In prior shutdowns, border protection, medical care of inpatients, air traffic control, law enforcement, and power grid maintenance have been among the services classified as essential, while legislative and judicial staff have also been largely protected. Mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid also continue.

Does a government shutdown save money?

While estimates vary widely, evidence suggests that shutdowns tend to cost, not save, money. OMB official estimates of the 1996 government shutdown found that it cost the taxpayer $1.4 billion (over $2 billion in 2013 dollars), and some estimates have put an even greater price tag on a shutdown.

How does a shutdown differ from a default?

In a shutdown, government temporarily stops paying employees and contractors who perform government services, whereas the list of parties not paid in a default is much broader. In a default, the government exceeds the statutory debt limit and is unable to pay its creditors (or other obligations). Without enough money to pay its bills, any of its payments are at risk—including all government spending, mandatory payments, interest on our debts, and payments to U.S. bondholders. Whereas a government shutdown would be disruptive, a government default could be disastrous.

While we hope that this Q&A will serve as a resource for those wanting to learn more about government shutdowns, we believe that lawmakers must come together on a bipartisan compromise to fund the government before the September 30th deadline. Ideally, that compromise would include entitlement and tax reforms and help put the debt on a sustainable long-term trajectory.