The federal government will shut down next week unless a last-minute budget deal can be reached. Here’s everything you need to know about what that means:
When could it happen? – There are actually two slightly different deadlines that could lead the US into a government shutdown:
- September 30th: A continuing resolution (CR) is a law that is passed as a way to extend certain deadlines so that Congress can have more time to pass major legislation. On the 30th, the CR that has allowed the US Government to be fully functional without having passed a budget appropriation law this year will expire. This would effectively leave the government without a budget.
- Mid-October: Sometime next month, the government will no longer be able to take loans or pay back the debt it has already accumulated, unless Congress can vote to raise the debt ceiling (which essentially allows us to borrow money and pay it back). A failure to raise the debt limit would be akin to letting the United States max out its only credit card, leaving it unable to spend anything but the cash held by the Treasury Department.
What would a Shutdown mean? – A total shutdown of government would be catastrophic and therefore won’t happen, but in the event that a new CR can’t be passed, many “non-essential” government operations would be halted. These operations include all national parks and monuments, the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, and even many veterans’ services. The law provides only for government functions that protect American lives and property to continue during a shutdown; these include air traffic control, federal prisons, FEMA, and national security agencies.
If the nation also fails to increase the debt limit, even more spending cuts will have to be made. At that point, national security personnel are among the only federal employees who would not be at risk of being furloughed without pay.
How will it affect average Americans? – There are a number of direct effects that a shutdown could have on most people. Aside from not being able to visit national parks and monuments, it is likely that Americans will have their new claims for Social Security and Medicare delayed until Congress acts. Hitting the debt limit would exacerbate the suspension of government services and likely force permanent budget cuts for many agencies. Likely victims of debt-related budget-slashing are the Departments of Justice, Transportation, and even Education.
It is also important to take note of one thing that may not change in the event of a shutdown: In the past, furloughed federal employees have been paid retroactively for the time they were forced to miss, despite the suspension of the services they offer. Taxpayers could essentially foot the bill for a government-wide paid vacation if this happens again.
How could it be avoided? – Last week, theRepublican-led House of Representatives passed a version of a continuing resolution to fund the government until the end of 2013. However, the CR also includes language which would de-fund the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) and prevent its scheduled implementation later this year. The repeal of the ACA has been a major part of the Republican platform ever since the law’s passage. The Senate, which has a majority of Democrats, is virtually guaranteed to strip that section from their version of the CR. This will force leaders of both houses to hash out a third version of the CR together in a negotiation that is being hailed as a “showdown” by the media. Once an agreement can be reached, a CR should be passed and the government can resume normal activity.
How soon can an agreement be reached? - Unfortunately, “showdown” is an appropriate description of this debate. Many Tea Party republicans have made the repeal of Obamacare their #1 priority, and the president has characterized their willingness to tie this mission to the budget as “holding the economy hostage.” He has vowed not to negotiate over the budget or the debt limit, saying that the GOP is “focused on trying to mess with [him].”
Republicans in Congress stand by their bill, insisting that they are “keeping to their word to [their] constituents” by putting all their effort behind a repeal of Obamacare.
Why would legislators let this happen? - It may seem disturbing to think that the entire government’s budget is being used as a tool to force a new debate about the Affordable Care Act, but many people are viewing this debate as a fight for the political conscience of the country. In the event of a government shutdown, if one side can shift blame substantially onto the other, it could result in a major change of the political landscape. Republicans in Congress hope to win the PR battle over the impending shutdown, thinking that it will help them secure their majority in the House and perhaps win them the Senate and White House in the near future. Many of the Tea Party members of Congress are also simply not vexed by the potential shutdown; forcing tough decisions and spending cuts would be a major victory for fiscal conservatives.
The last time a shutdown occurred was in 1995, when Newt Gingrich led a similar fight against the Democratic President Bill Clinton; it cost the government $1.4 billion, President Clinton ultimately won the “PR battle”, and he brought a Democratic majority to the legislative branch after winning re-election in 1996.
Republicans are hoping that their luck will be different this time around, but even if they can’t hurt the President’s reputation with this debate, they have already managed to create a major speed bump for the rest of his agenda.
Aakash Abbi is a student of the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at HitListNews@gmail.com or via Twitter at @AakashAbbi
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