Why is the US government headed for (another) shutdown?

It happened last in 1996, now it looks like the US government is headed for a shutdown again. Photo / AP
It happened last in 1996, now it looks like the US government is headed for a shutdown again. Photo / AP

By Nicole Hemmer

The dysfunctions of America's federal government, primarily caused by Republican intransigence, have created a menagerie of strange new political beasts: fiscal cliffs, sequestrations, nuclear options. So there's something comforting about the latest looming crisis, a good old-fashioned government shutdown. If Congress can't agree on a funding bill by Monday night (5pm Tuesday NZ time), the federal government closes its doors. Here's your guide to what happens next.

First things first: what's a government shutdown?

Without a funding bill, the federal government can't operate. Normally when the two parties are at an impasse, they pass a continuing resolution, a sort of mini-budget to keep the government up and running while they sort out their differences.

But when they can't even agree on that, then the federal government shuts down.

Given the constant gridlock in Congress, how is that any different from the current state of affairs?

It's true that the Senate went nearly three years without passing a major piece of legislation. But while members of Congress sit around twiddling their thumbs, the sprawling bureaucracy of the executive branch continues to provide the services that keep the national government running. With a government shutdown, those offices and agencies close up shop.

Not altogether, though. Like a house running on a backup generator when it loses power, the government has ways of continuing its most essential functions. Border patrol, the military, air traffic control, social security offices - these all stay open. Oh, and members of Congress still get paid, too. Their staffs, however, don't.

So what gets shut down? Major agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control, the National Park Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the National Institutes of Health. Offices stop processing visas, loan guarantees, and some veterans and unemployment benefits.

This all sounds vaguely familiar. Has this happened before?

It has - 17 times since the first one in 1976. Most are just for a day or two, so no one really notices. In 1995, however, the Republicans in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, faced off against President Bill Clinton over funding for education, public health, and the environment. For a total of 28 days, the federal government shut down. The stalemate ended when public opinion turned sharply against the Republicans, following Gingrich's boasts that he had shut down the government after being forced to sit at the back of Air Force One.

(Bonus shutdown trivia: It was during the 1995 shutdown, when the White House was largely staffed by unpaid interns, that Bill Clinton began a relationship with one of those interns, Monica Lewinsky. The affair would lead to his impeachment in 1998.)

What is keeping the two sides from coming to an agreement this time?

Republicans and Democrats have mostly hammered out a compromise on how to spend the US$1 trillion budget for fiscal year 2014. Great, right? It was, until a group of conservative House Republicans decided the continuing resolution would be a good opportunity to go after President Obama's health care law.

To be sure, House Republicans think it's always the right time to attack the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). They've voted to repeal, defund, or delay the law at least 40 times. Earlier this year, the New York Times calculated that since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have spent 15% of their time on the floor trying to dismantle the health care law.

Once again seeing the chance to turn a deadline into a debacle, conservative House Republicans amended the continuing resolution so that it defunded the health care law. Because the Democrat-controlled Senate will remove that amendment, the continuing resolution won't be passed until one side yields.

Will someone yield, or will the government shut down?

Anyone who has followed American politics over the past few years has learned not to make predictions about what Congress will do. A core group of conservative House Republicans has stopped acting in concert with their party leaders, leaving House Majority Leader John Boehner with little control over his caucus. While Boehner doesn't want a government shutdown, it's unclear whether he'll be able to wrangle enough Republican votes to prevent it.

That said, there are reasons to be hopeful the government won't shut down, at least not on October 1. First, the shutdown is immensely unpopular. Eight out of ten Americans disapprove of even the threat of a government shutdown during budget negotiations.

Second, agreeing to a short continuing resolution - one that expires in a month or two - allows Republicans to have this fight all over again. And they do love the fight. Senate Republican Ted Cruz just spent 21 hours on the floor pretending to filibuster the continuing resolution, even though he'd missed the deadline and the vote would proceed as scheduled.

Third, passing the continuing resolution allows Republicans to move on to the next big crisis. On October 17, the U.S. has to raise its debt-limit again or go into a catastrophic default. The House Republicans have already turned their attention to that fight, offering to raise the debt limit in exchange for the one-year delay on the health care bill. Plus the draconian Paul Ryan budget. Plus the Keystone XL pipeline and more oil drilling, a repeal of block grants for social security, a suspension of EPA carbon regulations, pension cuts for federal employees, and more.

That seems excessive.

Doesn't it? As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post put it, the GOP plan "isn't a serious governing document. It's not even a plausible opening bid. It's a cry for help."

Wasn't 2013 supposed to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform?

Turns out the conservative base wanted nothing to do with immigration reform. When Tea Party favourite Marco Rubio fought for immigration reform earlier this year, he saw his favourability rating among Republicans plummet, and House Republicans vowed to ignore the Senate bill. So this is what Congress will be doing instead. A year that began with sequestration, a policy backstop put in place because it was so awful no one thought Congress would let it stand, will end with more of the same.

Nicole Hemmer does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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