Government Shutdowns: Why You Should Care

Photo courtesy of Newsweek

By Mary Riley ’19, Chair of the Political Science Club and Emma Lehtonen ’19

The United States government shutdown of 2013 occured in the month of October, incidentally only a few months after the release of The Purge, the film in which all crime is legal for 12 hours each year, and all police, fire, and medical emergency services remain unavailable. While the connection between the two seems rather odd, upon first hearing of a government shutdown, the only assumption my naive, twelve-year-old self could make was that The Purge movie would become a reality. However, despite the fact that I now understand that a government shutdown isn’t anything like The Purge, the confusion remains. In the first government shutdown since 2013, many of us are still asking ourselves, “What exactly is a government shutdown?”  

The history of government shutdowns is somewhat complex.  While several government shutdowns occurred in the 1970s under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the forced shutdown of government operations didn’t become a rule until 1980. In that year, Ford’s attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, interpreted what is known as the Antideficiency Act as requiring government operations to at least partially halt when there exists a lack of funding.

Now every year in the U.S. government, the Senate has to agree upon a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. A government shutdown occurs when the Senate does not agree upon the budget by a certain date. What is this date you might ask? This date is a deadline that the Senate has agreed upon. The date is flexible and if the Senate agrees, then the date can be moved back.

During a government shutdown all of the nonessential government agencies shut down. This would include agencies that run National Parks, and it could even affect soldiers from getting paid. This also affects all of the people employed by these government agencies. People who work in agencies that get shut down are furloughed, which means they get temporarily laid off. Unlike employees that are furloughed, some are asked to continue to work without pay. A government shutdown can also affect businesses that have ties with the government because according to, “hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality services that cater to visitors to national parks and monuments will lose notable business during a shutdown.”

While we don’t have to worry about The Purge happening anytime soon, government shutdowns present other horrors. After 1980, government shutdowns came with major consequences.  The 2013 government shutdown resulted in 800,000 federal workers on leave without pay. Federal institutions and properties, such as National Parks and NASA, closed. Additionally, government shutdowns can take a toll on the U.S. economy. During the shutdown in 2013 under President Barack Obama, the economy lost $24 billion in 16 days. This shutdown was one of the longest in our country’s history. This particular shutdown was caused by disagreement in the Senate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

But the horrors don’t stop there. Government shutdowns reflect a deepening ideological divide in our country, as well as a failure to achieve much needed cooperation. Government shutdowns are often driven by contentious issues. During Ford’s presidency there were four shutdowns over abortion. The 2013 shutdown was driven by Republican efforts to stop funding for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  This time it is over immigration, specifically the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act.

For some, these shutdowns might embody the failure of our political system. Instead of creating healthy opposition and compromise, some believe that our adversarial party system perpetuates disunity and deadlock. A belief strongly held by some is that division in Congress represents division in the country. And just like The Purge, the attitude is “Us versus Them.”



photo courtesy of FOX News


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