We don’t talk much about politics or the government ‘round these parts, because it’s 1) generally kind of boring, 2) the same thing over and over again, 3) incredibly hard to write about without a bias, and 4) most Congresspeople do not care what their backpack style says about them. Still, sometimes things happen that are simultaneously a big deal, possibly going to affect you, and actually interesting.
So yeah, the government can shut down.
Er, how can the government do that?
Yeah, it’s pretty lame, but it’s kind of one of those “checks and balances” things your civics teacher would ramble on about. Both chambers of Congress need to agree how to spend funds for the year. If the House of Representatives (the big one, with 435 people) and the Senate (the small one, with two per state) can’t agree on how to spend funds, then we’re at a standstill.
Why can’t we all just get along?
That’s a pretty good question. We’re pretty sure you need to be an adult to be a member of Congress, but both sides have dug their heels in and are not abiding by "sharing is caring" rule. We’ve heard they don’t use their inside voices either.
The House is controlled by Republicans, and the Senate is controlled by Democrats—though each only “controls” their chamber by a pretty small majority, all things considered. This split happens all the time, but usually life goes on and Congresspeople continue doing their jobs and the government doesn’t grind to a screeching HALT. Yes, Congress has been a little unproductive the past year, but generally the world keeps turning even though the houses are divided.
No, but really, what’s the deal?
What’s going on right now is that the House Republicans wanted to defund the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare), which was upheld by the Supreme Court as "lawful" earlier this year. Deciding how to spend money is totally, 100% Congress’s job. Obamacare was enacted into law, but House Republicans continue to oppose the law. So the House passed a resolution-type-thing to defund Obamacare (totally within its spending power) tied to the whole budget. The Senate rejected their proposed budget.
The House proposed a half-compromise last night, asking Democrats to delay Obamacare funding for another year and revisit the issue then. The Senate rejected that too.
These proposals-rejections happen all the time. The problem is that usually we punt them into another year. We did this at the end of fiscal year 2013, but now it’s time to address the punt (there is probably a better sports analogy but I do not know how to play football).
The fiscal whurt?
You’ve probably heard the term before, but in case you don’t know what it means, fiscal year is the “spending” year. Obvi, the regular year is like, January 1 through December 31. Because so much stuff is going on around December 31, the government (and most businesses) have a different fiscal year so they can wrap things up before the holidays (when people want to be on vacation and many businesses aren’t in full force).
So, the government’s fiscal year is April 1 through March 31. Thus, if things aren’t agreed upon by both chambers by March 31, then we have this problem. Last March, Congress couldn’t agree on funding for the year, so Congress “punted” it to now, September 30, 2013.
Uh, but don’t we need the government?
So, “essential” and “permanent” functions keep going. Think: the military, mail, security stuff, other things that keeps people alive and safe. “Non-essential” things do stop, like national parks, parts of NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, yadda yadda yadda. However, some of that “non-essential” stuff includes the National Institute of Health, passports, and veterans’ benefits. AND THE PANDA CAM. Take my life, take my liberty, but do not take mine panda cam.
It’s estimated that about two-thirds of the government falls into the “essential” or “permanent” category, with about another one-third in the non-essential category.
How does a shutdown affect other important stuff like this "economy" thing we keep talking about?
It’s pretty speculative, and the “economy” is a weird concept that we’re not qualified to explain. However, it’s estimated that some bad stuff will happen if this goes on for longer than a month (specifically a small but real decrease in GDP for 2014). The shutdown will also make it difficult for the government to borrow money from other countries (something we do a lot).
Do the Congresspeople have to go to work?
Yes, Congress (and the President!) is considered a permanent function. So, their funding doesn’t need to be approved on an annual basis. Pretty convenient, eh?
However, a lot of Congressional and White House staff are deemed “non-essential” and will be sent home until this fracas is over.
Do they get paid?
Er, we’re not sure. The essential people are entitled to pay, but perhaps not on time (by law, they have to get paid, but the law doesn’t say they have to get paid on time). The non-essential ... it’s questionable.
Has this happened before?
Yes, but not since we were but a twinkle in our parents' eyes. It’s gotten close many times in the past few years, but an actual shutdown hasn’t happened since 1995. Usually, it gets close, Congress passes a "punt"-like resolution (like they did earlier this year), and it's sorted out by the time we get to the punt (again, sports?).
In theory, Congress could pass another resolution in the next couple of days, but both chambers seem to be sticking to their side—for now.
Why do adults act like children?
We don’t know. We hope the next generation of Congresspeople (you guys!) are better negotiators and compromisers than these guys.
What do you think? Is it okay for Congress to essentially shut down the entire government? WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?