Open and Shut: The Background on Government Shutdowns

[Wondering what's up with the U.S. government shutdown? You're not the only one. We've got everything you need to know right here.

Open and Shut: The Background on Government Shutdowns

[Wondering what's up with the U.S. government shutdown? You're not the only one. We've got everything you need to know right here.

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Eight hundred thousand Americans.

That’s how many people were affected by President Donald Trump’s government shutdown. The longest U.S. government shutdown in history. (How’s that for a presidential legacy?)

We watched it drag on in the press (for 35 freaking days), as thousands of Americans were forced to ask, “How do I pay my rent? How do I pay for groceries?” and undoubtedly, “How stubborn can one man be?”. (Answer: Very.)


Government shutdowns have occurred around the world (but don’t worry America, yours are legitimately the most notable), and they can occur for all kinds of reasons. Typically it’s over a failure to pass legislation, or a failure to appoint a new government.

So how does America’s compare to other government shutdowns?

Belgium operated without a government between 2010 and 2011 for a shocking 541 days. A caretaker government was allowed to function while the country sorted itself out. Northern Ireland had a government shutdown in 2017 when a power-sharing agreement collapsed. And in the United Kingdom, where it was once legally impossible to shut down the government, there are now rumblings that a shutdown could be imminent following the event of a no-deal Brexit.

While federal government shutdowns are pretty common in the U.S., (it’s happened in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1995, 2013, and twice in 2018), they aren’t really a thing in our home and native land. It’s because we follow the Westminster Parliamentary system, which was developed with a failsafe that ensures our government continues to operate, even if the ruling federal party can’t pass funding legislation. 

In those cases, instead of shutting down the government, it triggers a general election. 


The most recent U.S. shutdown occurred over a failure to pass the annual funding legislation (because “somebody” thought a US $5.7-billion wall was essential for border security).

Congress is required to annually pass 12 appropriations bills for each fiscal year, and having only enacted five of the 12 for 2019, the Antideficiency Act required a shutdown.

So what’s causing the holdup? A roadblock, literally.

After practically hedging his entire 2016 campaign on building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump needed to double down on his efforts to see this thing through. (The man’s a real estate tycoon, how tough could one wall be?) After an initial Homeland Security appropriations bill stipulating US $1.6 billion for border security was rejected by Republicans on the Senate floor, they countered with a request for US $5.7 billion. Democrats said “no way, Jose” and what followed was a classic “he said, he said,” wherein Trump said he’d be proud to shut down the government in defence of border security, that he’d take the heat for it, only to counter days later, blaming Democrats for the debacle.

As the deadline for a shutdown loomed near, it looked as though Trump would ease up on his stance but after catching flak from conservative media outlets, Trump pulled a 180 and said he’d refuse to sign any bill that did not include the border wall funding he’d initially asked for.

And just like, 800,000 government employees were off the payroll. Let’s not forget that this all occurred right before Christmas, forcing any negotiations to wait until the holidays were over.  


During a government shutdown, all non-essential discretionary federal programs are closed, non-critical government employees are sent home without pay and critical employees are are required to continue working without pay.

Essential services (meaning anything related to public safety) are allowed to continue operating. So things like Medicare and Medicaid, social security, food stamps, the military, border patrol, air traffic control, TSA and the US Postal Service were still operational, but national parks, museums, the IRS and State Department services were closed, the impacts of which were pretty devastating.

Federal research agencies risked losing experiments when work was nearly forced to cease, and programs under the Department of Agriculture, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, faced dire consequences as resources and manpower dwindled.

On the less serious side of things, the government shutdown meant new breweries couldn’t receive permits from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, love birds in Washington, D.C. were unable to obtain marriage licenses and, crushingly, the Smithsonian National Zoo had to shut down its Panda Cam.


During the 35-day shutdown, a whole lot of sh*t went down.

On Jan. 3, the 116th Congress was sworn in, Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House, and the Democratic-controlled House managed to vote on four appropriations bills individually. Negotiations between Trump, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer grew heated when Trump threatened to “keep the government closed for a very long period of time. Months or even years.” adding, “I’m very proud of doing what I’m doing.”

With it glaringly obvious that Trump wasn’t about to resolve the issue, a group of Republican senators met to discuss a compromise that could be reached: border wall funding in exchange for protecting Dreamers, refugees and extensions to H-2B visas.

On Jan. 19, Trump shared a proposal, followed by a bill from the Republican party, which basically exchanged funding for a border wall with a temporary extension of two programs that would protect 700,000 immigrants from deportation.

And Democrats…rejected it.

All the while, Trump and Pelosi played tit for tat when Pelosi delayed Trump’s State of the Union address due to the shutdown, and Trump denied her use of a military transport for a pre-scheduled visit with overseas military personnel.


Washington may have been in shambles, but we did witness an overwhelming amount of support offered to the furloughed and unpaid workers.

Companies like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, American Express, Capital One and Chase offered extensions on bills, Kraft Heinz opened a free pop-up grocery store for federal workers, and DC chef José Andrés opened an emergency kitchen offering free daily meals.


It all finally (finally) came to head when Trump announced on Jan. 25 that he would sign a three-week funding measure, allowing the government to reopen until Feb. 15. In the 35 days the government was shut down, it’s estimated that US $1.18 billion in labour was lost, and Trump’s approval rating dropped from 42% in December to 34%.

When Trump was finally allowed to make his State of the Union, he made zero mention of his legendary shutdown. Yup, nadda. Pelosi’s sarcastic clap at the end of his address garnered plenty of attention, but it was Senator Kamala Harris’s epic reaction that pretty much summed up our thoughts.


After threatening to shut down the government for a second time this past Friday if he didn’t get his billions for the border wall, POTUS eventually caved (kind of) and signed the new funding legislation. The president was less than pleased with the bill, as it only included $1.375 billion (which was actually earmarked for “border security”) instead of the $5.6 billion he requested specifically for a physical wall. By approving the bipartisan agreement, the government will stay open through September 30 — at which point Democrats and Republicans will have to try again to come to some sort of agreement.

And while passing the funding bill was a big win for the federal workers who would have been affected by the shutdown (if there had been a second shutdown), it was a bit of a loss for the U.S. as a whole. 

Shortly after news broke that POTUS would, in fact, sign the new funding bill, it was announced that he would also declare a national emergency in order to bypass Congress and secure the additional $7.5 billion he needs to build the wall of his “national security” dreams. 

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