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Government Shutdown

October 2nd, 2013

Image composite credit: Flickr user Kaz Vorpal via Creative Commons

You may be hearing a lot of talk about the government partially shutting down.

It’s true.

What does that actually mean? How did it happen? And will you feel it?

It’s pretty complicated (understatement), but here’s the shutdown in a nutshell:

The federal government in Washington makes decisions on how to spend the country’s money. A lot of that money is actually from taxes your parents pay. There’s supposed to be a budget each year that decides how that money is spent.

In general, Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on how to best use that money. They actually have different ideas  on the role the federal government should have in people’s lives. Democrats generally believe in a bigger role than Republicans. Those differences come into play when they’re trying to figure out how to budget the nation’s money.

In order to pass the budget, Congress — the Senate and the House of Representatives — need to agree, or at least come to a compromise. Currently, the Senate is controlled by Democrats and the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans. And they’ve found it maddeningly difficult to work together.

The government shutdown happened largely because of a huge sticking point over a healthcare program called Obamacare (its technical name is the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act). It passed into law a few years ago, but it went into effect Tuesday, the same day as the deadline to pass a budget.

House of Representative Republicans don’t want to fund this big new national and mandatory healthcare program. They’re the keepers of the government checkbook and budget legislation originates with them. In the budget they proposed they said they won’t write checks to fund Obamacare. The Senate responded to the House of Representatives saying they won’t sign the House of Representatives’ budget because it doesn’t fund Obamacare. Total impasse.

This went back and forth … until their deadline to figure this out by Monday at midnight came and went. And now both sides blame each other.

The consequence of missing the deadline is that the government partially shuts down until Congress figures it out. Keep in mind, you have your state and local government as well and they’re not part of this.

Members of Congress continue to get paid but the people most hurt by the shutdown are every day Americans — it’s their tax money AND they elected Congress to figure these things out for them in the first place. Regular citizens will also feel the impact of the government shutdown most.

What does that mean? 

The President is still at work. And “ essential ” federal government employees — the soldiers who keep us safe, the people who deliver our mail, and the air traffic controllers who keep our planes free and clear to travel, all still have their jobs. But the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and other national parks are closed. No more panda cam at the National Zoo either (the animals are safe and cared for though).

Families who had traveled across the world this week to see the Statue of Liberty up close … got turned away. World War II vets actually ignored the “closed” signs and visited their war memorials anyway. For many kids in Washington DC, the national parks that are their playground were padlocked. For some kids, like those who are part of the Head Start program, it’s more serious. Head Start is a government program that gives kids access to pre-school. Some of those kids won’t be able to get the education they badly need.

A recent poll shows that only 10% of people think Congress is doing a good job. That is historically low. To paraphrase Chuck Todd from NBC News , that’s basically friends and family at this point.

Once the House of Representatives and the Senate agree, President Obama would sign the budget bill into law. In the meantime, he expressed his frustration, particularly blaming a small subset of Republicans, saying, “One faction, of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government, shut down major parts of the government all because they didn’t like one law.”

Some Republicans would argue that these are precisely the checks and balances built into the system to ensure the president, or one party, doesn’t have too much power.

What just about everyone does agree on?  That the whole situation is dysfunctional.

How long is this going to go on? As long as it takes for them to work it out. The last time this happened was 17 years ago (in 1995), it lasted a month.

Until then, it’s U.S. citizens, including 800,000 federal workers, who are paying the price. Some of them have lost their jobs and won’t get paid. And it’s just getting started.

Kids are pretty much always told to work it out. And most often you do. Perhaps the government should look to you as role models for how to work together … and not the other way around. While you learn about the government, members of the government have a lot to learn from you.


Here’s ‘s take on it for kids.

Thanks to the  Brookings Institution ‘s Elisabeth Jacobs for consulting on this piece. Thank you also to Joe McLaughlin for his perspective.

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22 Comments on “Government Shutdown”

  • Virginia says:

    Why were they fighting? Couldn’t the government work it out like the guidance counselor say at school? What happens to the people effected by the government, in terms of work?

    • Claudia says:

      Hi Virginia,

      Thanks for your great questions. They don’t have easy answers or even answers everyone agrees on, but here goes:

      Why are they fighting?

      It’s more complicated than this but there are two major factors at work.

      1. The way the government is organized, the two chambers of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — are separate, and both very powerful.

      2. Republicans and Democrats over the past few decades have increasingly grown apart in their ideas about what’s best for America and Americans.

      When the above two factors are in play together, you have two very different and about equally powerful visions for the country. Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate, and they end up disagreeing a lot and are not willing to compromise much these days.

      Government tries to find the balance between being given power to rule on our behalf. But at the same time, not over-reach, so that they keep each other in check. In the current political climate, however, they seem to end up just preventing each other from moving forward. Your guidance counselor idea is a good one and certainly it would be nice if it worked that way.

      What happens to the people effected by the government, in terms of work?

      Also a great question. The government shutdown impacts many people, in terms of work. The most obvious is when the “non-essential” federal employees are asked not to come into work and therefore do not get paid. In some cases, some federal employees will be paid retroactively. In some cases, they won’t. For others, that’s money they no longer have to spend. For example, as one news story pointed out, money that would have been spent on Christmas presents, had to be spent on groceries instead.

      We hope this helps. Claudia

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