Chaos has been the norm in Congress for some time now, but this week a truly noisome stench is looming over the Capitol as Republicans prepare to shut down the government.
At its core, a shutdown is a failure of Congress to accomplish its most essential legislative task: funding the government. The federal government’s operations are maintained through 12 annual appropriations bills that approve budgets for federal agencies. If Congress doesn’t pass any of these bills before established fiscal deadlines, the agencies affected are legally not allowed to operate outside of their “essential” functions until their funding is approved by Congress.
As of now, only four of the 12 bills — securing funding for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, defense spending, and Homeland Security — have passed in the House. None have been approved by the Senate, and the chaos plaguing Republicans in the lower chamber means we’re barreling for at least a partial shutdown.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a pointed message to his colleagues in the House. “Shutting down the government is a choice,” he said on the Senate floor. “It’s not an interlude that lets us pick up where we left off. It’s an actively harmful proposition.”
House Republicans are poised to make that choice this weekend. Here’s everything you need to know:
Why are Republicans going to shut down the government?
In essence, it’s because a small cohort of Republicans within the narrow GOP majority in the House are pissed at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who guaranteed major spending cuts to the right-most faction of his party, and that he’s now struggling to deliver on.
McCarthy negotiated several agreements with his caucus, including a vow that appropriations bills would be debated and voted on separately, not lumped together into what is commonly referred to as an “omnibus” spending bill. Individual votes take more time, and time is about up. McCarthy also made various deals with individual members to gain their support as he was trying to secure the speakership, further sweetening the pot during this years negotiations over the debt ceiling.
Now everyone is refusing to let McCarthy renege on his word, even if it means triggering a shutdown.
Led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the Republicans upset with McCarthy have made issues like funding for the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol), military aid for Ukraine, and major cuts to federal agencies a sticking point in negotiations. The House has only managed to push through a third of the 12 bills, and the versions of the bills that have passed stand no chance of passing the Senate.
What has Congress been doing to avoid a shutdown?
Mostly fighting, and passing a few appropriations bills that are likely dead on arrival in the Senate.
On Thursday night, House Republicans managed to come to an agreement on their heavily disputed defense appropriations bill. The final product revoked military aid for Ukraine and cut the salary for the Secretary of Defense to $1. It also included rewrites of the Pentagon’s abortion access policy for service members. The bill doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate. Same goes for the other two appropriations bills the House managed to squeeze through on Thursday.
One option Congress often falls back on to avoid a shutdown, and a strategy that has been endorsed and passed by the Senate is a “continuing resolution,” or CR. A CR is a stopgap bill that temporarily extends funding approvals through a later deadline at their previously agreed-on levels, and sometimes with minor changes.
It’s looking like a no-go in the House, though. Gaetz and his allies have coalesced around a policy of #NoCR and have stated quite plainly that they’re willing to shut down the government if it means securing the individual debate and passage of each appropriations bill. It doesn’t help that the group is being egged on from the sidelines by former President Donald Trump, who wrote to Republicans that “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!”
McCarthy has attempted, without much progress, to negotiate a deal with his split caucus, and even floated a bipartisan measure with the support of House Democrats. However, his hardline Republican opponents have maintained that unless McCarthy finds a workaround they’re satisfied with, they’ll move to expel him from the speakership. On Friday, McCarthy’s last-ditch effort to pass a stopgap funding measure was shot down by 21 members of his own party.
The deadline to pass these bills is Oct. 1, and if Congress doesn’t reach a deal and approve legislation by 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, the government will enter its 15th shutdown in American history.
What happens when the government shuts down?
Primarily, government agencies must immediately cease all “non-essential” operations. The government would not be able to issue paychecks to more than 4 million employees, including 2 million military service members, many of whom have families and dependents. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees would be placed on furlough or told not to come to work. Once the funding is approved, they would be allowed to return to their jobs and receive back pay, but in the meantime, the salary they rely on to pay their bills won’t be given to them.
The shutdown would also impact services available to Americans who don’t work for the government. While existing Social Security and Medicare payments are authorized to continue, auxiliary services like benefit approval and registration may be affected. In previous shutdowns, food safety inspections were halted, and the Nation Health Institute was barred from admitting new patients.
National parks will close, air travel may be affected, and loan applications through the federal government for farmers, students, and small businesses will not be processed. Families relying on Supplemental Nutrition Program Assistance Programs (SNAP) or WIC may lose access to critical funds if the shutdown lasts more than a few days.
This seems pretty serious. Why are Republicans launching an impeachment inquiry with a shutdown hours away?
Republicans can’t even give avoiding a shutdown their full attention. They’re also launching an impeachment inquiry sideshow against President Joe Biden.
“Speaker McCarthy’s invertebrate appeasement of the most fanatical elements of his conference now threatens the well-being of every American,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) during the first inquiry hearing on Thursday. “I see a method in the madness. A week ago Donald Trump posted a comment, saying that a government shutdown is ‘the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other patriots.”
“The Constitution is irrelevant to them,” Raskin added. “What counts is what Donald Trump wants.”
When was the last government shutdown?
The last government shutdown took place under former President Donald Trump between Dec. 21, 2018 and Jan. 25, 2019.
At 35 days, it broke the record for the longest shutdown in the history of the country. The critical issue at the heart of the dispute was Trump’s desire to build a border wall. The former president threatened to veto appropriations bills approved by Congress if they did not contain funding for the wall he wanted to build on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The shutdown was partial, affecting only about one-quarter of the government, but Its ramifications were widespread. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, $3 billion of which was unrecoverable. 380,000 federal employees were placed on furlough. Another 420,000 worked without pay. Families lost homes, were unable to afford food, or had their immigration status put in jeopardy. Native American communities, which rely heavily on federal funding for basic services were severely affected.
With the 2019 shutdown being such a recent experience for many federal workers, they’re already dreading what may come on Sunday. “For a lot of these workers, going a day without pay is the difference between putting food on the table and paying the bills,” Jaime Contreras told DCist. Contreras heads the D.C. chapter of the Service Employees International Union, and represents thousands of custodial and security employees contracted by the federal government in the D.C. area.
When will this all be over?
It’s over when funding is approved, be it through a stopgap bill that extends the previous appropriations agreements, an omnibus spending package, or after each bill is individually debated and passed.
The first two would likely imply a quicker end to the shutdown, but the latter could result in weeks of negotiations and votes as individual sticking points are worked out amongst legislators.
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