Illustration by Abby LeForge.

Government shutdowns: uncertainty as a price for democracy?


The showcase of the United States’ unique democratic system happened on Jan. 20. It marked the one-year anniversary of a reality TV star’s presidential inauguration. It also highlighted the country’s freedom of speech in the form of a nationwide women’s rights demonstration, as well as the beginning of a short-lived government shutdown.

Professor Stephanie Burkhalter, a political science professor at HSU who studies communication strategies between Congress and the president, provides more insights on the phenomena of government shutdowns.

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown occurs when the House of Representatives and the Senate cannot pass an appropriations bill — the technical name for a bill that funds the government agencies — that the president will sign.

Shutdowns are a uniquely U.S. government thing, because of our constitution, the filibuster rule and our two-party system. The two parties have become increasingly polarized on policy issues and more willing to have a shutdown if they cannot get the policy changes that they think are important.

What caused this previous government shutdown and why was it so short?

This answer depends on whom you ask. The consensus from mainstream media sources is that the Senate Democrats caused the shutdown by filibustering and demanding that the Senate markup — the official term for editing a bill — and debate an immigration bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, known as “Dreamers.”

Senate Democrats agreed to fund the government through Feb. 8 in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise that the Senate will take up an immigration bill in the next two weeks.

In this shutdown, Democrats were also able to negotiate six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. House Republicans had not funded this program in their version of the permanent appropriations bill.

What does a shutdown say about the administration of President Trump?

From my understanding, President Trump was ready to make a deal on Jan. 19 to avoid a shutdown, but his advisers scuttled the deal, because they believed that this deal was not tough enough on immigration policy.

So, this shutdown says less about Trump and more about the partisan politics plaguing our nation’s capital.

What could happen around Feb. 8?

[On Feb. 8], the Senate will reconsider a permanent spending bill. If Democrats again decide to filibuster, another shutdown could occur if a deal cannot be reached between Republicans and Democrats on immigration policy.

Government employees, such as those who work in the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, will not be paid.


Eric Nelson, the manager of Humboldt Wildlife Refuge, an organization managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, detailed the obstacles a shutdown would impose on the refuge’s operations.

“In 2013, there was a shutdown that lasted 13 days, I believe,” Nelson said. “Probably the most challenging part of a shutdown is dealing with the uncertainty, and what it can do to schedules and scheduled work.”

Because shutdowns are often prevented at the last minute, preparing for them is difficult. Fortunately, most shutdowns occurred outside of the spring/summer restoration work season and did not pose big problems for the refuge’s projects.

If a shutdown occurs on Feb. 8, the refuge will be closed to most of the public. However, independent researchers working on the refuge will be allowed to continue their work, as long as they can access their research site without the help of a federal employee.

Nelson added that if the shutdown goes on for three to four weeks, the financial challenge of not getting paid will become an issue.

“Ironically, Congressional members do get paid during a shutdown,” Nelson said.

Burkhalter also recognizes that a shutdown’s impact is affected by its length.

“The effects of a shutdown are felt the longer it continues,” Burkhalter said. “Let’s hope that the Senate can make a deal on immigration policy, a permanent spending measure can be passed and we can feel secure that our government is funded through this fiscal year.”

On the potential of shutdowns that may occur beyond Feb. 8, Burkhalter said that they could happen again when Congress tries to pass appropriate measures.

“I would not be surprised if a few more shutdowns are headed our way in the next few years,” Burkhalter said.

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