Patricia A. O'Malley

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Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
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Established 1993

How a Federal Government Shutdown Affects You
Here We Go Again.
January 20, 2018


News reports have been chattering about a possible government shutdown since July.  Both Democrats and Republicans have been posturing and saber-rattling and making noise, but none of them bother to explain what that means for the public.

The House passed a continuing resolution on Thursday.  The Senate was unable to pass it on Friday.

As this is published, at 12:08 AM on Saturday, the United States government is shut down.  Again.

There's no telling how long the shutdown will last, or how long the next continuing resolution will last, or how long it will take Congress to adopt a full, final budget.

But you can bet the rent that this information will come in handy again sometime soon.

Each federal fiscal, or budget, year begins on October 1 and ends on September 30. Fiscal year 2018 began on October 1, 2017 and ends on September 30, 2018.  Fiscal year 2019 will begin on October 1, 2018.  The Office of Management and Budget directs all budget activities for the White House.  The Congressional Budget Office does the same for Congress.

Federal law requires Congress and the president to adopt a final budget before each fiscal year begins. They couldn't reach that agreement in 2017, so the government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions since October 1. That means that the government can keep operating and paying its bills temporarily. When there is no funding, federal law requires the government to cease all non-essential activities.  

While it's possible to operate on continuing resolutions and without a real budget indefinitely, it is unlikely.  The politicians usually make noise until one side or the other blinks, or until the public makes a whole lot of noise. 

Forcing a shutdown is a political stunt intended to make the opposing party look bad.  It serves no financial purpose.  It doesn't save any money.  In fact, it actually costs more money to shut down the government than to keep it running.  I won't go into the details, but you can read them here .

Republicans shut down the government twice during the Bill Clinton administration – from November 13 to 19, 1995 and December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996.  Republicans also forced a shutdown in 2013, and then whined when they found out that some federal facilities were shut down.

Contrary to what many believe, the Constitution does not give all budgetary power to the House of Representatives or require budget bills to begin in the House.  It doesn’t even require that Congress produce an annual budget. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 does that, but not the Constitution.


The problem this time centers around immigration policy and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which protects Dreamers (people who were brought into the U.S. illegally, as children, by their parents) from immediate deportation. Most Republicans want enormous funding for Donald Trump’s border wall before they will discuss DACA.  Democrats refuse to spend anything for a wall.  They want a complete reform of all immigration policies. 

You can find details of the political wrangling on plenty of sites.

There have been 18 federal shutdowns since 1976, ranging from one to 21 days, with an average length of seven days.  Since 1980, the Office of Management and Budget has required all federal agencies to submit plans for operating in the event of a shutdown. Even the Congressional Research Service can't determine how much of that planning is, or should be, available to the public. There are no clear-cut rules about what happens in a shutdown, but Donald Trump, as president and leader of the executive branch of the U.S. government, has the final word as to which activities stop and which continue. 

That should be fun.

So what does this mean for you? There is no easy answer to that question. Much depends on definitions, but the government will most likely follow the pattern set during the most recent shutdowns in 1995, 1996, and 2013.

Federal spending falls into two broad categories - mandatory and discretionary.  Federal staff positions also fall into two categories:   essential and non-essential.  Generally, essential personnel will remain on their jobs and mandatory spending continues. 


  • The president, White House executive office, members of Congress, and presidential appointees (upper-level cabinet officials, judges, ambassadors, etc.) The Constitution requires that the president, Congress, and Supreme Court be paid.
  • Personnel engaged in managing shutdown operations
  • National security, foreign relations, law enforcement and prisons
  • Most active duty military operations
  • Public health and safety such as medical care of hospital inpatients and emergency departments, food and drug safety inspection services, and hazardous materials handling
  • Air traffic control and other transportation safety functions
  • Social Security, Veterans Disability, and federal pensions
  • Border and coastal protection
  • Protection of all federal property
  • Emergency and disaster assistance
  • Tax collecting and other functions which manage the banking and money systems
  • Public utilities and power distribution systems
  • Post offices and mail delivery. The U.S. Postal Service operates on its own revenue and doesn't take money from the federal budget.

    All employees not directly involved in those activities will be furloughed.

    Most of those who continue working will not be paid until the budget is resolved.



  • New applications for student loans and grants, visas, passports, government employment, Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, and alcohol, tobacco, and firearms licenses will not be processed.
  • Routine trials and court activities will be curtailed.
  • Government contractors and suppliers will not be paid.
  • Federal parks, museums, libraries, and historic sites will be closed.
  • Most custodial and maintenance functions at federal buildings and properties will stop.


  • Some military operations are essential, but defense department spending is discretionary. So some military activities, but not all, will continue. We don't yet know which will stop.

  • Public benefits programs such as TANF, SNAP (food stamps), WIC and other food assistance programs, Medicaid, and many others operate through state and local government employees. So they will continue to process applications. However, the federal budget funds those programs and benefits will most likely be suspended for the duration.

If you are a government employee, or rely on government services or programs, you can watch government websites for updates. President Obama’s White House and OMB sites contained general information about looming shutdowns.  

The Trump White House sites do not. 

Each department and agency should post specific information on their sites.

Look at for links to every government department, agency, and office - federal, state, local, and tribal.

And contact your legislators.

Tell them how you feel and what you want them to do.

For More Information

Politifact:  Everything You Need to Know About a Government Shutdown
CNN: The History of US Government Shutdowns in 1 Chart
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process
White House Office of Management and Budget
Congressional Budget Office
Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal
Donald Trump Threatens to Shutdown the Government
Read the U.S. Constitution
The Federal Budget Process Never Ends
Contact your legislators:

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