The government of the United States shut down at midnight, as the Republican-led House of Representatives refused to pass a funding bill that did not in some way impact the Affordable Care Act (ACA). What does a shutdown mean, though? Have we suspended government in favor of mob rule? Do our dollars still work? Do our elected officials have to start begging just to get through the day? All good, if somewhat silly questions. Here are some answers to what, exactly, is going on.
1. Why did the government shut down?
The government shut down because the Republican-led House of Representatives and Democratic-led Senate could not agree on a budget. Both Houses passed a budget, but Republicans have refused to allow negotiations between the two houses to hammer out a deal. Congress could pass a “continuing resolution,” which continues funding at last year’s level, until a budget agreement can be reached; however, the House of Representatives has refused to pass a continuing resolution that does not impact Obamacare. So far, the House has tried outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act, delaying the ACA for a year, stripping away contraception coverage under the ACA, eliminating taxes on medical devices and taking away health coverage from congressional staffers. Each time, the Senate rejected the restrictions in favor of a “clean” continuing resolution, which simply funds the government and takes no position on the ACA.
2. Is there any hope of breaking the impasse?
Possibly. The Republicans were pushed into this position by their extremist base, which has been out to destroy Obamacare since before it passed. That group, spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pushed hard to throw a spanner into the gears. That said, more moderate Republicans recognize that shutting down the government is terrible politics; Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called the fight a “fool’s errand,” saying it was a “doomed process from the start.” The House of Representatives said it will ask for a conference committee to hash out details of the continuing resolution — something they avoided doing for the budget as a whole — but Senate leadership has already rejected the notion, calling on the House to instead pass a continuing resolution with no additional demands. Given that President Obama has also promised to veto any continuing resolution that isn’t free from add-ons, Republicans will almost certainly have to fold; it’s just a question of how long they want to drag this on.
3. So what happens next?
Over half of America’s 2 million federal government employees will be furloughed; most will have to stop doing their jobs entirely, losing pay until the shutdown ends. Those that remain on the job, with the exceptions of active-duty soldiers and officers, will eventually get paid, but not until the shutdown is over.
4. What services are affected by the shutdown?
Services to assist the poor will impacted; housing assistance will be suspended, although most local agencies will be able to make up the gap in the short term. Regulatory agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA and the Commodity Futures Trading Association, will be shut down almost completely. The Department of Homeland Security is going to stop operating its E-Verify system, which allows employers to check the legal status of immigrants seeking jobs. National parks and museums will shut down as well. In addition, while passports and visas will continue to be issued, the number of employees left to process them will be limited.
5. What services keep operating?
Social Security and Medicare keep operating, as does the military and federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. Other agencies that “protect life and property” will continue to function, including air traffic control and the TSA, border patrol, federal prison guards and services related to operating existing infrastructure. In the short term, veterans’ benefits, unemployment insurance and food stamps will continue to be issued, although again, all of these agencies will be operating short-staffed, opening up the likelihood of delays.
6. Well, at least the shutdown will save money, right?
It seems like it should, right? After all, over a million employees are going without pay. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: the government shutdowns under the Clinton administration ended up costing taxpayers $2 billion, due to the cost of shutting down and restarting government services and the backlog of work waiting for government workers when it concluded.
7. Doesn‘t the shutdown give the GOP what it wants — a stoppage of Obamacare?
Nope. The Affordable Care Act, like Social Security, is permanently funded. The ACA’s insurance exchanges opened as scheduled at midnight, and while there have been reports of difficulty getting online, that’s almost certainly due to a crush of demand — hardly a sign that the ACA is reviled by Americans as a whole.
8. So let me get this straight — Republicans are putting America through the pain of a government shutdown in an attempt to stop the Affordable Care Act, but the Affordable Care Act is going forward as planned?
9. Well, at least Congress won‘t be getting paid during a shutdown. That‘s one consolation.
Sorry. Congress keeps getting paid during a shutdown. And they should. After all, if they didn’t get paid, they might not be able to keep doing the spectacular job for American that they’ve been doing so far.
Take Action: Demand a pay freeze for Congress during the shutdown!
Photo Credit: Joanna Orpia