Explainer: Why is there a government shutdown in the US?

A political impasse over Trump's border wall means 800,000 workers have now gone three full weeks without being paid

Explainer: Why is there a government shutdown in the US?

Trash builds up along the National Mall in Washington DC. Picture by: Douliery Olivier/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

For the last few weeks, a partial government shutdown has brought the US to  something of a standstill.

Republicans and Democrats have been stuck at a major political impasse, primarily over Donald Trump's demands for a border wall with Mexico. Meanwhile, around 800,000 federal workers have now gone three weeks without pay. The crisis led to both President Trump and Democrat leaders making prime-time addresses on national television to explain their respective stances.

As of today, the shutdown has become the longest on record. But what exactly caused it, how common are shutdowns, and is there an end in sight?  

What is a government shutdown?

Picture by: Liu Jie/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

A partial government shutdown occurs when the US Congress and the US President can’t reach agreement on funding.

Funding for government agencies is reliant on appropriation bills - effectively the annual legislation needed to keep money flowing. Such legislation is passed in Congress, and signed by the President. However, sometimes a funding gap arises when the typical process breaks down for whatever reason. This, in essence, means the necessary funding to keep government agencies up-and-running is no longer available. That often means drastic measures are needed - hence, the agencies impacted are partially shut down and pay cut off for most employees (with some exceptions).

Not all federal agencies are impacted, hence the ‘partial’ description - the US military, for example, is covered by separate funding agreements.

What are the consequences?

 A sign outside of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park informing visitors that the Zoo is closed due to the partial Government shutdown in Washington, D.C. Picture by: Kris Tripplaar/SIPA USA/PA Images

The most obvious consequence is hundreds of thousands of federal workers going unpaid. Some are sent home on unpaid leave - known as a furlough - while others are required to continue working without pay. Traditionally, workers affected do receive their back-pay once the shutdown ends - although that’s subject to congressional approval.

The lack of an expected pay cheque can be a major obstacle for many people - reports from the US have highlighted that some workers have been forced to seek other jobs (although usual employment rules still apply) or borrow money to make ends meet. If the shutdown drags on beyond January and into February / March, other programmes such as food benefits could potentially be impacted.

The fact that workers are sent home, meanwhile, inevitably has other consequences. Visit some US government agency websites, for example, and you’ll see updates have stopped or dramatically slowed down since December as the workers responsible for publishing said updates have been sent home. Elsewhere, photos abound of rubbish piling up at national parks and other monuments as bins go uncollected.

There’s more unexpected consequences as well. Amid staff shortages, reports have emerged that some trees in the famed Joshua Tree national park have been destroyed as visitors attempt to access remote and typically restricted areas.

Are shutdowns a regular occurrence?

Then US President Bill Clinton, right center, shakes hands with US Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Republican of Kansas), left, as US Vice President Al Gore, center left, shakes hands with the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (Republican of Georgia), right, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on December 19, 1995. Picture by: Robert Mcneely/DPA/PA Images

'Regular' is maybe a bit too strong, but they're not entirely uncommon either.

There’s been around a dozen partial shutdowns since 1980. Some have been small - affecting a relatively small number of employees - and most have only lasted a few days (several, in fact, have only lasted for a single day). Others have been more significant, lasting a week or more.

The previous longest shutdown occurred in 1995-96, amid a budget dispute between Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In 2013, a shutdown lasted for 16 days - in that case, the disagreements revolved around President Barack Obama’s ‘Obamacare’ healthcare legislation, which was vehemently opposed by Republicans.

This one is more severe than usual, though. Today, with 22 days having passed since it began, the current shutdown officially became the longest in US history. And there’s no apparent end in sight.

What’s caused this shutdown?

President Donald Trump speaks as he tours the U.S. border with Mexico at the Rio Grande on the southern border. Picture by: Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images

Quite simply, Trump’s proposed border wall.

One of the most prominent yet divisive pledges of his presidential campaign, Trump’s proposed border wall along the southern border with Mexico is in many ways his signature policy goal. With his first term in the White House passing its halfway mark, Trump has doubled down on his efforts to secure the wall. He’s refused to agree any spending bill that doesn’t grant billions of dollars in funding to border security - including the wall.

Democrats, meanwhile, are having none of it. They’re refusing to give any money for the wall - they’ve pledged extra funds for border security, just not the wall. They argue it would be unnecessary and ineffective. With the 2020 election looming, Democrats remaining steadfast to the wall has an extra urgency as they ramp up their public opposition to Trump - just like Trump himself will want to secure progress on the wall before he launches his re-election bid.

The shutdown started in December when Republicans still controlled the House of Representatives, Senate and presidency. Bipartisan efforts to resolve the crisis have been put forward in Congress and passed by individual houses, but the essential consensus has yet to be reached. The political situation has grown more complicated since Democrats took control of the House last week. Legislation was already struggling to make it to the 60-vote threshold necessary in the Senate before the two houses were controlled by different parties, and now it’s even more of a challenge.

Is there an end in sight?

Not really… there’s no immediate sign of a breakthrough in negotiations anyway.

Trump has hinted that he could declare a national emergency to fund the wall. Such a drastic action would almost certainly prompt significant legal challenges, although government would likely be able to reopen while any such court battles played out. However, Trump publicly indicated on Friday that he won't be declaring an emergency for now - calling on Congress to resolve the situation instead.

In terms of the impasse itself, some minor cracks have appeared on the Republican side. Some senators - including several facing tough reelection battles in 2020 - have publicly called for the government to be reopened and for border security to be tackled separately once everything’s back up-and-running. The party’s leadership has remained firm, however, and those who’ve voiced public concerns about the situation remain very much a small minority.

Some politicians have raised the prospect of giving young immigrants brought to the country illegally - known as ‘dreamers’ - protections sought by Democrats in return for border funding. Indeed, the Trump administration’s decision to drop the protections was one of the key causes of the last shutdown (that one only lasted a weekend). However, such a deal appears to have been rejected by the White House - and it remains unclear whether Democrats could be convinced to drop their opposition to the wall even in return for such a significant concession.