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Congress once again flirts with a government shutdown. Here’s why it keeps happening.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Mike Johnson in 2023.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Mike Johnson in 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

For the fifth time in seven months, Congress flirted on Friday with a partial government shutdown. With roughly 12 hours before a midnight deadline to fully fund the government, the House of Representatives approved a $1.2 trillion package, which the Senate passed early Saturday and President Biden signed.

A partial government shutdown could have affected tax filing season and federal student aid, caused airport delays, and hampered U.S. border operations.

If it feels like in recent months that you’ve been always hearing about the possibility of a government shutdown, you’re not imagining things. Here’s a closer look at why it keeps happening:

💵 Why does this happen in the U.S.?

Let’s start with the basics.

U.S. government shutdowns didn’t happen until the 1980s when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, under the Carter administration, issued a stricter interpretation of the 1884 Antideficiency Act that basically said: no budget, no spending.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to come up with a federal budget, which involves figuring out how much money the government can spend over the course of an upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. It’s then approved by the president.

In the federal budget, there are two types of spending: mandatory and discretionary.

Mandatory spending makes up about two-thirds of all federal spending. This includes programs like Social Security, Medicare for the disabled and elderly, and Medicaid for low-income individuals. Congress does not need to approve mandatory spending, which is on autopilot.

Discretionary spending has recently made up a little over a quarter of all federal spending. Every year, Congress must decide how to allocate a portion of the federal spending in what’s known as an appropriations process. There are 12 different Congressional appropriations subcommittees, which include everything from the Department of Defense to the Food and Drug Administration.

Therefore, Congress must pass 12 separate funding bills (aka appropriations bills), a standard for every fiscal year, starting on Oct. 1, to provide money for things like defense, education and transportation programs.

Congress typically bundles the 12 appropriations bills into a package, known as a massive omnibus bill.

🕛 What happens if those funding bills aren’t enacted by the deadline?

If the appropriations bills aren’t passed by a given deadline, Congress can pass a short-term bill, formally known as a continuing resolution (CR). This temporarily extends funding and buys more time for the appropriations process.

But if no short-term bill is passed, the government can shut down. If Congress has already approved some, but not all 12 appropriations bills, then a partial government shutdown would occur.

🔎 What happens when the government shuts down, and how is the public affected?

Each government agency has its own protocols in the event of a government shutdown. Typically, the government stops most nonessential activities that fall under the umbrella of discretionary funding. This means that national parks would be closed, air travel would be snarled since air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents must report to work without pay, passport renewals would be on hold and tax refunds could be delayed, among other things.

Services considered essential under discretionary funding would continue. These roles mostly pertain to safety, including: air traffic control, food safety inspections and law enforcement. The employees performing those essential services, however, would be forced to work without pay. Once Congress concludes a shutdown by funding the government, federal government employees receive back pay, while federal subcontracted workers who are employed by a third party likely would not.

🔄 Why does it seem like we’ve been constantly on the verge of a government shutdown?

Government shutdowns are more likely to occur when the House and the Senate are controlled by rival political parties or when one party controls Congress and the president is a member of the other. The threat of a government shutdown has frequently been used as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.

Because short-term spending bills often last for only a few weeks or months, there is no shortage of opportunity for the parties to deadlock. Since September, the threat of a partial government shutdown has happened five times.

This déjà vu could also have something to do with a recent unusual approach to CRs.

Last November, House Speaker Mike Johnson proposed a “laddered continuing resolution.” Instead of one deadline for one massive funding bill deadline, this approach creates a series of funding deadlines. If they aren’t met, government agencies would shut down at different times, instead of all of them shutting down at the same time.

In November, Congress passed a laddered continuing resolution that broke apart the 12 government funding divisions into two units. This created a January deadline to fund things like veterans’ affairs, transportation, housing and energy, and with a separate February deadline that covered the remainder of the government programs.

Then, in January, a short-term funding extension created a new pair of new deadlines for March 1 and March 8. As a result, the House and Senate passed a $460 billion package of six (out of 12) government funding bills that President Biden signed into law on March 9, getting Congress to the halfway mark in their appropriations work for the 2024 budget year.

This brings us to the March 22 deadline. If the Senate passes the proposed $1.2 trillion package that wraps up the remaining six spending bills before the midnight deadline, it means the government will be funded through the end of the fiscal year. This will also put an end to the seemingly never-ending cycle of government showdowns — at least until this September.