US Government Shutdown 2018

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Posted on: January 21, 2018

**Author Note: This is a large, complicated, and dynamic situation. I have little doubt that portions of this story will be out of date by the time the paper goes to publish. However, it is my hope that this article will give a brief introduction to the nuances of the US Budget process in general, and the situation as of the morning of January 21 in particular.**

On January 20, 2018, the Government of the United States officially shut down. The shutdown occurred because lawmakers—specifically the Senate—was unable to reach a deal that would prolong the government budget, hopefully until a permanent solution could be reached. As of Sunday, the effects of this shutdown have been minor; however, come Monday many thousands of government workers were placed on furlong as non-essential services stop.

The Normal Budget

The process of passing a budget is a difficult and tedious multistage process that must ultimately end with the collective approval of the President, House, and Senate. Typically, the budget process starts in February when the President of the United States issues their budget request. This year—as in many years where the president is new to the post—the budget was delayed until mid-March, with a “skinny budget” being released in late February. This presidential budget becomes a non-binding starting point for Congress to adapt, change, or discard altogether.

Within Congress there are two chambers: the House and the Senate. Both of these bodies must agree on a budget but, given the enormity of the task, the process is broken into steps. First, each chamber independently makes a high-level budget resolution, in which they allocate money to different agencies, but not projects within those agencies. After each chamber passes a bill they are satisfied with, representatives from the two must meet to reconcile the different budgets. Eventually, this process leads to a consistent budget resolution that passes both houses. The budget resolution is not presented to the president and does not become law.

Once a consistent budget resolution is achieved, various appropriation subcommittees from each chamber create appropriation bills. These subcommittees and bills each deal with different areas of focus; for instance, the Legislative Subcommittee has jurisdiction over the budget of Congress itself. After individual appropriations bills (or, in some cases of political deadlock, an Omnibus Bill of several appropriation bills combined) are approved by each chamber, the same difference-reconciliation process occurs again until both the House and Senate pass the same legislation.

After the House and Senate pass a consistent budget, it is sent to the President to sign into law or veto, ideally before October 1 when the US financial year begins.

Frequently, the process of passing the budget is delayed. As a result, Congress can pass a continuing resolution which provides government funding for some period of time while a full budget is hashed out. As with the full budget, a continuing resolution must pass the House, Senate, and President to become law.

Budget 2018

This year, the budget has been bogged down for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, President Donald Trump is trying to get money for his border wall. On the other, Democrats are trying to extract concessions on the “Dreamer” issue—the status of illegal immigrants who came to America as children—since their status is due to become perilous when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, started by ex-President Obama’s executive order, is terminated by President Trump in March. (Trump’s argument is that such a program should have legislative, not executive order, approval.)

As previously mentioned, the 2018 fiscal year started on October 1, 2017 without any budget. However, until this point the government has been running using three consecutive spending bills. The last of these three bills was due to expire on January 19. A number of last-minute efforts by legislators failed to pass a continuing resolution failed in the Senate, resulting in government shutdown on January 20.

Unsurprisingly, hardliners on each side of the political divide are blaming each other for the shutdown. Republicans blame Democratic senators of trying to leverage the situation for political gain, suggesting that the continuing resolution should be about keeping the government running. Democrats accuse the Republican legislatures of being unreasonable. They also gloat that this is a Republican problem since, for the first time ever, the government has shut down despite having one party control both Chambers of Congress and the President. While this is true, the Senate vote requires a super-majority and, therefore, the support of some Democratic senators.

Blame is also being placed on the President, who has been inconsistent in his statements, resulting in promising deals being torpedoed. For instance, he changed his mind on supporting a continuing resolution containing re-authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a compromise Republicans had been using to satisfy Democrats.

As a result of the failure to find a continuing resolution, government agencies are trying to ease the transition to shutdown. Unlike in the previous shutdown in 2013, open air parks and monuments will remain open when possible. Non-essential White House staff can come in Monday for four hours to close up their work or transition it to staff who will continue working. Essential services such as the mail will remain in operation. Some services, such as access to the Philadelphia Liberty Bell and New York Statue of Liberty, have been suspended but the worst of the shutdown won’t occur until Monday when thousands of federal employees are forced to stay home.

Meanwhile, legislators are desperately seeking a solution. Representatives in the House have been advised to stay in Washington—as opposed to travelling home for a planned recess—in case the Senate manages to come to an agreement. There are also a number of moderate senators from both sides who have been trying to piece together a deal that will let both parties save face and move forward. There are talks of compromising between the Democratic wish for a few-day continuing resolution and the Republican desire for a 4-week bill.

It is possible that a compromise can be reached soon, minimizing the shutdown. It is likely that, even if the shutdown drags on, the effects will not be catastrophic. However, as the push to re-open the government drags on (in addition to the need to pass a 2018 budget), the start date of the 2019 budget process looms; in an ordinary year, President Trump would be expected to release his budget proposal in early February.