Yet Another Shutdown Showdown: What’s at Stake and What Does a Shutdown Mean? 

Lightspring /
Lightspring /

Americans have seen this movie dozens of times. Another budget crisis, another shutdown looming. Some Republicans are supporting a shutdown, Democrats are claiming it’s the end of whatever world will be left after climate change, and President Joe Biden is dusting off his check-writing pen in anticipation. Doomsday, this time around, is set for September 30, 2023. But how will a shutdown impact Americans, what are Republicans fighting for, and why should anyone care anymore? 

The Antideficiency Act, established in 1884 and updated in 1950, dictates that federal agencies cannot use or allocate funds without Congress’s approval. When Congress doesn’t pass the twelve annual spending bills, federal agencies must halt non-essential operations until Congress acts. This situation is referred to as a government shutdown. In cases where Congress approves some but not all of the twelve spending bills, only agencies lacking funding must cease their operations, leading to a partial shutdown. 

During government shutdowns, many federal employees are told not to go to work. Those who provide essential services like air traffic control and law enforcement continue working but don’t receive their paychecks until Congress resolves the shutdown. This situation applies only to around 25% of federal spending that requires annual approval from Congress. 

However, benefits like Social Security and Medicare continue as usual because they are pre-authorized by Congress through laws that don’t need yearly approval, although there may be some limitations on services during a shutdown. Additionally, the Treasury can still make timely payments on U.S. Treasury debt. 

Shutdowns can cause disruptions, including delays in processing passport applications, small business loans, and government benefits, closures of visitor centers and park bathrooms in national parks, reduced food-safety inspections, and various inconveniences. They are common enough that the White House Office of Management & Budget provides detailed contingency plans that government agencies follow during shutdowns. 

In June 2023, Congress, with the support of Republican leaders in the House and Senate, passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a law signed by President Biden. This act removed the limit on federal debt and established spending limits for annual appropriations—one for defense and one for non-defense—for the fiscal years 2024 and 2025, which begin on October 1, 2023. The idea was that these limits would guide the creation of twelve appropriations bills that add up to the agreed-upon levels. 

While the Senate Appropriations Committee followed this path and passed all twelve appropriations bills with bipartisan support, House Republicans were dissatisfied with the agreement reached by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House. They aimed to spend less than what was specified in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, much to the frustration of Democrats and the White House. President Biden threatened to veto the pending House appropriations bills.  

When the House and Senate have differing bills, the next step involves a conference committee where both chambers work to reach a compromise. This compromise is then voted on in each chamber before being sent to the president for approval. 

It’s a lot to ask for in just a few short weeks, and Biden is likely to fight against every concession that limits his party’s ability to spend. At this point, all Americans can hope for is a continuing resolution, intended to keep funding as it is while Congress hammers out a more permanent budget. 

Republicans have signaled that four key conditions must be met to avoid the shutdown. They call for lower government spending, an increase in border security, an end to the weaponizing of government entities like the Department of Justice and FBI, and a cessation of “woke” policies within the Pentagon. 

Individual House Republicans have a few conditions of their own. Representative Marjory Taylor Greene (R-GA), for instance, has been very vocal regarding her desire to launch immediate impeachment proceedings against Biden and is threatening to withhold her vote unless this condition is met. It’s expected that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will need to reach across the aisle for Democratic support to overcome his own party’s opposition to compromises that would move appropriations forward. 

For most Americans, it’s another yawn-inducing threat that, at the end of the day, has little affect on their day-to-day lives. Affected workers will receive back pay for the time missed and social programs will continue payouts. But for the media, the president, and progressives, it’s another ride on board the “doom and gloom” train, and one that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will ride straight to the end of the track.