Shutdown! US government grinds to a halt

High and dry: The statue is part of the National Parks Service, meaning it has closed. © Getty

What happens when the world’s largest enterprise stops functioning? America is waking up to a government shutdown after the Senate failed to pass a new budget. But will people really notice?

Today thousands of US government employees are being ordered to stay at home.

On Saturday the vast machinery of the American state started to come to a halt. A National Guard infantry battalion called off a training exercise which had been planned for a year. Flu samples from around the country are no longer being collected and tested.

This happened because the Senate failed to pass a new budget to fund the federal government for the coming weeks. The measure required 60 votes, but the vote on Friday was 50-49.

Why can the two parties not agree?

Republicans want funding for border security — including the border wall — and immigration reforms, as well as increased military spending. In return, Democrats have demanded protection from deportation for 800,000 illegal immigrants who entered the USA as children.

The recriminations have begun. President Trump has accused his opponents of being “more concerned with Illegal Immigrants than they are with our great military or safety at our dangerous southern border”. Democrats have accused Trump of being controlled by a hard-right cabal.

Both sides are playing to their bases by refusing to compromise, a common strategy ahead of mid-term elections. But as the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher writes: “The game of chicken ended with a head-on crash.” So what happens now?

During a shutdown, nearly 40% of the government workforce is placed on “furlough” or unpaid leave, and told not to work. “Essential” services, such as the military and the postal service, will continue.

But here are some things that will not happen in America until the situation is resolved: no passports will be processed. Some national monuments, like Mount Rushmore, will close. Museums and zoos operated by the government will not open. National parks will be unmanned.

Yet, according to The New York Times, “Millions of Americans will not notice the effect of the shutdown on their daily lives.” Some, traditionally suspicious of big government, might not mind the shutdown. Are they right?

Open and shut

Some say that although this must not last too long, a short government shutdown could remind Americans that they need federal help much less than they think. The US government has become bloated, leading to a culture of dependency among the people. Let us hope this shutdown leads to a complete rethink about what government should be.

Nonsense, reply others. Americans may be sceptical of “government” in the abstract, but they like the particular ways government benefits them. That could mean anything from social security to maintaining war memorials and keeping parks clean. Eventually this will affect everyone, and Americans will be glad to have their government back.

You Decide

  1. Could a few days without government ever be a good thing?
  2. Who is most to blame for the shutdown?


  1. Draw a cartoon to illustrate a story about this crisis.
  2. Imagine that the government shut down for a year. Write 500 words on what would happen and how people would react.

Some People Say...

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

Ronald Reagan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The US government shutdown began at midnight on Friday. The full effect will only become apparent today as many of the services affected do not operate over the weekend. We know that both Democrats and Republicans hope that the situation will be resolved today or at some point early this week. We know that a government shutdown would cost the USA roughly $6.5bn a week.
What do we not know?
How long this will go on for. Trump has the border wall and immigration reform — arguably his two most important campaign promises — to fight for, and given his character it is unlikely that he will give either up very happily. Trump is due to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos later this week, but we do not know whether he will still go if the crisis at home continues.

Word Watch

The measure required 60 votes
There are 100 members of the United States Senate. With a 51-seat majority in the Senate, the Republicans did not have enough seats to pass the bill without some support from the Democrats.
800,000 illegal immigrants
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowed these people to receive a two-year period of protection from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. The policy was established by the Obama Administration in June 2012.
For example, Republicans included in the bill a six-year extension to a health insurance programme for children in lower-income families. But Democrats want this programme extended permanently.
Mid-term elections
In November 2018, elections will take place which could shift the balance of power in the US Congress.
Shutdowns are surprisingly common in the United States. The last came in 2013, when government shut down for 16 days after Congress was unable to agree on a budget. This is the first time it has happened while one party, the Republicans, controls both Congress and the White House.

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