America has entered yet another “government shutdown,” with the House and Senate unable to agree to a new appropriations bill before previous authorizations lapsed at midnight on Friday. For many fans of smaller government, the concept has an understandable appeal, and gleeful and sarcastic comments to that effect proliferate every time it happens.
But what does a so-called “shutdown” really mean? Not much. In fact, they don’t even save money, and they do nothing to shrink our bloated federal government.
It all starts with the Constitution, which provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” This gives Congress what is commonly referred to as the power of the purse: only Congress can approve the spending of federal money.
The federal government should actually shut down, but it doesn’t
The problem comes when Congress, hamstrung by partisan gridlock, allows current appropriations to expire without having passed new ones. By a strict reading of the Constitution, this should result in a genuine government shutdown: the federal government can’t spend any money whatsoever, including to pay its own employees, until Congress passes a bill authorizing it.
There’s an additional legal factor, with varying interpretations of the Antideficiency Act, an 1884 law last updated in 1982, which more explicit limits some kinds of federal spending and contracts during a legislative funding lapse.
Historically, government agencies operated in a sort of grey area during brief funding lapses, and mostly continued operations on an ad-hoc basis on the belief that Congress had not intended them to shut down.
In the modern era, each agency and department has a shutdown plan that specifies essential and non-essential employees, with those deemed non-essential temporarily furloughed. In practice, the distinctions are often drawn arbitrarily, with little real statutory guidance.
Government employees don’t get paid during these furloughs, because the Treasury Department can’t cut the checks. But invariably, Congress authorizes back pay and make-whole provisions in the bill eventually ending the shutdown.
Government officials try to make government shutdowns painful
Notoriously, some government operations actually get more expensive during a shutdown. The most famous example is the rangers deployed and barriers put up by the National Park Service to officially “close” the Washington Monument. In 2013, the Park Service also closed the road leading past Mount Rushmore and chased away people trying to view it, sparking outrage.
A shutdown does not free anybody from any legal obligations: all of the laws and regulations remain in place. Instead, the furloughs often delay the issuance of licenses and permits, but it does not free anybody from the requirement to obtain them.
Shutdowns represent, in reality, a sort of political charade, the result of Congress repeatedly kicking the can down the road and failing to pass normal annual budgets and appropriations bills on time. While some have dragged on for longer, most are over relatively quickly. A game of chicken between Republicans and Democrats to see who blinks first and concedes the demands of the other.
What shutdowns don’t do, is save money or shrink the federal government.