What Happens During A Government Shutdown - Part 1

The term government shutdown is inaccurate in the first place. In what has begun to feel like a nearly annual tradition here’s an explanation of what a “shutdown” is and isn’t. 

The federal government doesn't actually shut down. Instead, it prioritizes. During a partial federal government shutdown, there's actually a great deal of discretion with regard to what stays open and what doesn't. Over the years, I've come across at least as much inaccurate information as anything that's true. In this first story, I'm going to break down what's really going on. 

Let's start with just the facts:

  • The reason "shutdowns" are largely a modern phenomenon isn't due to increased partisanship. It is a byproduct of the budget process created 1976.   
  • Since 1976 there have been 20 "partial government shutdowns".   
  • Nine shutdowns have reached the stage where certain agencies and their employees are furloughed. The most recent one occurred in January of this year.  
  • The government doesn't work on pay-go, or a revenue in, revenue out approach. We're still accumulating debt and that's just because.
  • The Office of Management and Budget, currently led by Mick Mulvaney, determines what remains open and what doesn't.  
  • The average impact is that only about 20% or 1 in 5 of the 430 federal agencies is impacted. During the 2013 shutdown, the most recent of real significance, only 17% of federal agencies were impacted.

So, let's break this down to brass tax. First, Congress created this process for themselves in the '70s as a way to increase partisan leverage. Second, we've averaged some type of partial government shutdown every 2.2 years since. The only reason it likely seems like a rarer occurrence is media manipulation. The OMB is largely making the priority determinations about what stays open and what doesn't. 

You get a sense of what the priorities are of the current administration which can actually be insightful if you view the process analytically. By the way, if approximately 344ish federal government agencies are still "working" during a shutdown, we still have way too much federal government. I'll say again. Take a pen and a piece of paper and see how many you can actually name. So, if an agency you don't know exists but that you pay for isn't operating... well you get the idea. It's the forest and tree thing going on for the most part. Except that the media is loud and obnoxious trying to find that former tree in the forest.  

Photo by: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images



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