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Beyond the smokescreen

The facts about government shutdowns

Created date

December 5th, 2013
Government Shutdown

October headlines touted the event as a calamitous end of days. Since then, the words government shutdown have been ringing ad nauseam in the minds of anyone within earshot of a radio or television or within arm s reach of a magazine or newspaper. Nonetheless, so much of this talk has centered on politics, whether to place blame on either party for its unwillingness to negotiate or to justify such refusals as principled, even noble, grassroots measures. Politics aside, what is a government shutdown, and what does it really mean for Americans? Actually, it doesn t mean much, according to Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. The coverage of this latest funding gaff was just so over the top that they d led people to believe that when a continuing resolution runs out the entire government shuts down, he explains. That s not true for two main reasons. First, Spakovsky notes that many parts of the government operate either on multi-year appropriations or permanent appropriations, which is why benefits like Social Security continue to go out to recipients during a shutdown. Second, he cites the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal employees from spending money that hasn t been appropriated. In this vein, concerns over the possibility of default are essentially unfounded. What s more, essential services that the country can t do without aren t subject to Congressional continuing resolutions for funding. As a result, over 80% of the government remains up and running during a so-called shutdown, a prime example being security and law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Transportation Security Administration. Over the last two weeks, people have been treating the shutdown as though it was a unique event, and it simply wasn t, says Spakovsky. Since fiscal year 1977, we ve had 17 shutdowns of various durations a number of them during the Carter and Reagan Administrations. I don t think it s quite that big a deal. Essential employees keep working, benefits go out, and the country always weathers the storm.