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Government Shutdown Mechanics

Updated on October 5, 2013

Terms Defined

Continuing Resolution- Sometimes also called a CR, this is a type of legislation, that takes the form of a joint resolution of Congress, to fund the government when a full appropriations bill has not been passed. It is a stop-gap measure.

"Clean" CR- In the current debate this refers to a Continuing Resolution that leaves the Affordable Care Act alone.

Appropriations Bill- a piece of legislation that designates the spending of money in a budget context.


The government shutdown that began October 1, 2013 is the result of a series of political calculations, events, and Constitutional mechanics. The United States operates on a fiscal year basis. The fiscal year begins October 1st. Congress under Article I, Sections 7 & 8 is responsible for passing a budget that authorizes the President and the Executive Branch to fund the activities of the Federal Government. Congress failed to pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year and the expiration of the prior budget authorization. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 largely control the current budget process. The Executive Branch shut down non-essential operations and services until Congress passed a budget and the President signed the bill into law.



To understand the background of the current budget crisis, you need to go back to at least 2010. Tea Party affiliated candidates swept into office in Congress and in state legislatures. Many of the Tea Party and other conservative Republican candidates that won office credited their victories to the public’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives.The Senate remained in control of the Democrats, barely. The two parties had difficulty agreeing on a budget and on raising the debt ceiling to avoid the first ever U.S. default on its public debt. A last minute compromise avoided the so-called fiscal cliff, but the Democrats felt they had given too much to avoid the crisis.

During that same election Republicans strengthened control over state legislatures. This was important because the 2010 census required the redistricting of many House districts. The Republican dominated legislatures gerrymandered the districts to create more “safe” Republican seats.

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During the 2012 elections the Republicans lost their bid to oust President Obama, but kept their control over the House, thanks largely to another influx of conservative and Tea Party affiliated Republicans. This core of Congressmen elected from conservative districts in 2010 and 2012 made it clear that repeal of the Affordable Care Act was their highest priority. Their overarching philosophy was shrinking the size and expense of the federal government.

The Republican dominated House and the Democratic controlled Senate were unable to reach a compromise after the 2012 election on the budget. They two sides let the “sequester” across the board cuts take effect because they were unable to make a deal. Despite Democratic predictions that the cuts would be devastating, the general public largely did not notice any change in government services and the promised public backlash never developed.

Congress has rarely passed a budget before the October 1st deadline. The last time this deadline was met was in 1997. However, the government usually avoids shut down because Congresses passes Continuing Resolutions that continue to fund the government until a bipartisan compromise is reached.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

The Long and Complicated Process of a Bill Becoming a Law
The Long and Complicated Process of a Bill Becoming a Law | Source

Other Factors

  • There are probably enough votes in the House to pass a "Clean" CR, between the democrats and many Republicans. However, the members cannot get such a bill to the floor for a vote yet because of the strict control the Speaker of the House has on what legislation gets voted on. The so called "Hastert Rule" is often invoked. This informal policy means the Speaker will not bring anything to a vote that does not have the support of 51% of his party.

  • Many observers note that in times past earmarks were used to negotiate with members to resolve impasses such as this. An earmark is a special line item in a bill that authorizes special funding for projects, usually in the home states and districts of certain members of Congress. These earmarks were mostly eliminated by rules changes in the House and Senate meant to lower government spending and make appropriations bills more transparent.

Current Budget Process

The conservative House Republicans quickly realized they lacked the votes to repeal Obamacare. They changed tactics and began trying to either delay or defund the controversial law. President Obama countered that he would not negotiate a delay or defunding effort of the Affordable Care Act and would veto any bill attempting to do so. Senate Majority Leader Reid also made clear that the Senate would not pass a Continuing Resolution that sought to delay or defund the law.

The Senate Democrats passed Continuing Resolutions that would fund the government and not touch Obamacare. The House Republicans passed Continuing Resolutions that would delay or defund Obamacare. The Senate democrats in April 2012 offered to have a Conference Committee where representatives of both the House and Senate could meet to hammer out a compromise. The House through Speaker John Boehner declined to be a part of a conference committee stating there was no point in meeting yet because the sides were too far apart.

In the weeks and days leading up to the government shutdown deadline it became apparent that the Democrats were convinced the House Republicans would take the blame for a shut down and were not inclined to compromise on their position. The House Republicans began to splinter, but a core group of conservative Republicans were equally convinced that President Obama would take the blame for a shut down and were not inclined to budge.

The House Republicans after the shut down offered to sit down with the Senate at a Conference Committee. The Senate Democrats have declined the offer stating the parties are not any closer than they were when the Republicans refused to form a Conference Committee.

The shut down quickly became a blame game and a contest to get influence public opinion about who was really at fault for the shutdown.

Politics Over Policy?

The Different Sides of the Budget Battle have Rarely Been Willing to Be in the Same Room
The Different Sides of the Budget Battle have Rarely Been Willing to Be in the Same Room | Source

Other Perspectives

The Government Shutdown Shows Checks and Balances Work.

The President is threatening to veto a bill that he feels would not be in the public's best interest and is not popular with the majority of the country. The House wants to take action that is radical, "defund" and existing law. The Senate is trying to temper those efforts. This is how our Constitutional system was designed.

The Government Shutdown is Democracy Run Amok

Republicans and Democrats are preening for the cameras and are fighting to see who will take the blame and suffer the political cost instead of working towards a solution. This is the danger of political parties that James Madison warned about in The Federalist Papers.

Constitutional Role of the Congress

The Constitution gave Congress the purse strings in Article I. The idea is that Congress makes the laws and decides on funding priorities. Congress also makes tax policy. Congress decides how much money the government should spend, what the money should be spent on, and where the revenues to pay for the government should come from.

Constitutional Role of the President

The President is head of the Executive Branch and is charged with executing the laws passed by Congress. The Executive Branch has limited authority to direct spending. The Executive cannot spend money Congress has not authorized and cannot raise taxes on its own. The Executive Branch does have some limited authority to not spend money, but this has largely been curtailed by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. President Obama legally could not keep the government fully functioning when Congress failed to produce a budget or Continuing Resolution.


The current budget fight and government shutdown is also taking place in the shadow of what leaders and economists regard as the real danger, the debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling will be met on or around October 17, 2013. Both Speaker Boehner and President Obama have stated the government cannot be allowed to default on its debt and that the debt ceiling issue will be resolved on time. In the meantime the government shutdown will continue until one side concedes it has lost the public opinion battle.

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American Government 101


This article is part of a collection of articles about the workings of the government of the United States. Articles are added regularly. Please check out other articles in this collection to learn more. If you have a suggestion for a topic for a future article tell me in the comments.

© 2013 Forseti


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for a non-hysterical assessment of the situation in a "Just The Facts, M'am" style. Must read more of your work.

      "This core of Congressmen elected from conservative districts in 2010 and 2012 made it clear that repeal of the Affordable Care Act was their highest priority. " In Obama's first term the Republican goal was to prevent a second term. This party needs goals beyond undoing elections and passed legislation in order to survive.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent informational Hub, Forseti. The mechanics and politics behind the shutdown and the debt ceiling are quite intricate. Thanks for shedding some light on it.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Thank you for your efforts to explain this complex issue. We see stories on the news here in Australia with very little explanation. Voted up ++.

    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 4 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      This is an excellent article on the role of Congress and the president as currently defined under our Constitution. It is good that you pointed out that our founders had considered and pointed out the danger of political parties. The system of governance as originally designed largely prevented that. It has been subtly modified though, and many believe that the root problem to this current crisis is a result of that subtle modification. As is now, Party rules.

      The modification that was made was to take away from the individual States legislatures the power to select their representatives in the Senate. When that happened, Senators no longer were required to owe their allegiance to their States legislatures. The result was moves by the Political parties to put more emphasis on electing Senators in States that they did not control. It is a lot easier to finance 30 some Senate campaigns every two years than it is to finance 435 Representative campaigns. The Democrats have discovered that, and now control the Senate. This has led to the perception that Senators predominately represent for party, while Representatives (currently mostly Republican) continue to hold a greater appeal to the people. What is lost under this new system is that now no one speaks at the federal level for our individual States. They come from the States, but they owe no allegiance to them.

    • danthehandyman profile image

      danthehandyman 4 years ago from Maryland

      Properly, your article could be titled Budget Shutdown Politics. The mechanics are accurate, but the political process is the problem. There is nothing historic or unusual about budget negotiations, even negotiations that falter. What is unusual in this case is the complete unwillingness of the Senate and President to negotiate.

      The Democrats rammed Obamacare through Congress on 100% party lines, without reading the bill, understanding the bill, considering the consequences to the economy and the quality of health care, without understanding the complexity it adds to the tax code (15,000 pages), or the complex implementation process. The Democrats that passed the bill without reading it should delay and re-evaluate the ACA, but just as they rammed it through Congress without proper consideration, they want to ram it on the American people even though they are excluding themselves and big business.

      No one wants to see the government shutdown, but how else can you bring arrogant Senators and an imperial President to the table? Both have said they will not negotiate. Your article implies the Republicans will not, but they have repeatedly requested negotiations. The reply from the President is that he will not negotiate with a gun to his head and he needs a “clean” CR before he will come to the table. Once he has a CR, what is left to negotiate? That’s like telling a car dealer to sell you a $10,000 car for $5,000 and then you will negotiate the deal. What?

    • profile image

      Benjamin Chege 4 years ago

      Hi Forseti. Informative hub. I was wondering what is this issue with the US government shutdown, but now thanks to your hub I have understood every step and the causes of the crisis. I hope the Congress, Senate and the President's office will solve the stalemate soon. The dollar is loosing ground at an alarming rate; I hope it will recover after things get back to normal. Thanks for the information. Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.

    • grocerynews profile image

      grocerynews 4 years ago from Canada

      Republicans and their supporters are the only ones exposing the flawed fine print in Obamacare. The new health program will eventually become one of the main drivers of future fiscal debt crises and if the past is any indication, repealing any part of the new health law will be next to impossible.

    • profile image

      saisarannaga 4 years ago

      You have enhanced our knowledge about the American Congress and how they influence the bills. It is sad that the condition is prolonging. Everyone must sit together and sort out things so that the common public is not harassed further!