A partial shutdown of the US federal government has stretched into a third week with virtually no end in sight. If it continues to Saturday, it will become the longest shutdown in US history.
The closures affect around 25% of the federal government, and are having an impact on 800,000 federal workers, many of whom will not receive paychecks for the first time since the standoff in Washington began just before Christmas.
Standing in the way of a resolution is Donald Trump’s demand for a wall on the US-Mexico border – a central promise of his presidential campaign. Despite repeatedly vowing that Mexico would pay for it, the president is now demanding $5.7bn in taxpayer money to proceed with construction of the border wall.
Democrats are standing firm against the proposal while Trump has threatened that the shutdown, which he already said he would be proud to take responsibility for, could last for “months or even years”.
What is a government shutdown?
During a government shutdown, federal agencies must cease all operations and services deemed non-essential while essential functions such as airport security and law enforcement will continue to be performed. Laid-off workers are sent home without pay while other employees must work without being paid.
The shutdown lasts until new government funding is approved by Congress and signed into law by the president. A majority – roughly three-quarters – of the federal government was fully funded last autumn, before the start of the new fiscal year which began on 1 October. Several agencies, however, continued to operate on temporary funding extensions, known as continuing resolutions.
On 21 December at midnight, those funding extensions expired and work ceased across nine federal departments. Many national parks are closed, immigration courts were suspended and scientific research has stalled.
How does a shutdown come about?
The sprawling federal bureaucracy that keeps many aspects of American life humming is funded by an annual budget set and approved by Congress. The president must sign – or veto – the 12 so-called appropriations bills, which lay out how federal agencies may spend their money in the next fiscal year.
Appropriations bills need 60 votes in the Senate, a requirement that often forces bipartisanship depending on the party breakdown in the chamber. When Congress fails to pass – or the president refuses to sign – budget legislation before a spending deadline, whatever portion of government lacks funding “shuts down”.
This process has becoming increasingly political in recent years and has been used by both parties as a way to extract concessions on legislative priorities.
How bad is this one?
If the shutdown continues through the weekend, it will be the longest on record.
The impact of the shutdown will only worsen the longer it lasts. The nation’s food assistance program has only been assured funding through the end of February. Meanwhile, federal workers appear to be growing frustrated. Transportation Security Administration employees have been increasingly calling in sick at airports across the country while at the Environmental Protection Agency are planning a “national sick day” to protest against the shutdown.
Who is to blame?
An impasse between a divided Congress and the White House is to blame, and Trump’s demand for a wall is the key sticking point. Public polling suggests that Americans believe Republicans, and specifically the president, are to blame for the shutdown. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans oppose the wall, while a larger share say it should not be the priority. In December, Trump said he would be “proud” to take responsibility for shutting down the government in the face of Democratic opposition to funding his pet wall project.
How can it be resolved?
Negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House are at a virtual standstill. That’s despite several tense meetings and the president spending the Christmas and New Year break at the White House instead of going to his club, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, alternating between threats and pleadings to Democrats via Twitter.
As the repercussions of the shutdown further ripple across the country, members of Congress – including a small but vocal group of Republicans – are demanding the Senate take up legislation to end the shutdown and allow the debate over border security to resume when the government opens.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to declare a “national emergency” that would – in theory – allow him to build a wall without congressional approval, but such a move would be fraught with legal obstacles and political peril. Alternatively, he may merely declare a “crisis” and continue his political arguments as he searches for a deal.