The federal government officially runs out of funding at midnight tonight. While a good amount of attention will be devoted to political blame, it’s helpful to understand what a shutdown really means and what will actually happen in its wake.
First, the name, “shutdown” is not entirely accurate. The situation can more cogently be described as a funding gap. Between which one stream of funding ends before another is approved. The drastic nature of these once normal bureaucratic snafus were exacerbated in 1980 when President Carter’s new Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti issued a couple legal opinions interpreting the obscure 1884 Antideficiency Act: One saying the work of government cannot continue through a funding gap, and another modifier saying that only essential government services and personnel could legally remain working. To allow non-essential government employees to work without being paid meant they would be “illegal volunteers”.
After the consequences of funding gaps became clear, politics gradually asserted itself. Throughout the end of Carter’s term and on through the Reagan and Bush terms, temporary shutdowns of anywhere between one and five days were commonplace and were precipitated by an outside political issue. The gap and the subsequent standoff between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, which dragged on 21 days, holds a modern record. Due to the political backlash that engulfed Washington in the months following the ’95 shutdown, America has not seen such an event since.
Another note about the term “shutdown”: Based on Civiletti’s second legal opinion stating “essential” workers can remain working allows for many things that actually impact most Americans to continue. Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements will not stop. Social Security checks will continue to be mailed. There is also a current statute stating that military personnel will continue to accrue pay which will be reimbursed after funding is restored. However, the term “essential” does not apply to national parks, zoos, and museums like the Smithsonian. They will close if there is a funding gap.