If you have been paying any attention to the news, you probably know that the US Government has been partially shut since midnight December 21, 2018. More specifically, work at nine departments, as well as some agencies making up roughly 25 percent of the federal government, has either ground to a halt or is being conducted at a slower pace because the budget to fund their day-to-day operations has not been approved by Congress. As a result, a fraction of the 800,000 employees, who are considered “non-essential,” have been furloughed, or forced to take a leave of absence. The remaining “essential” employees are expected to report for duty as usual, but will not get paid until a budget has been approved.
The US government operates like any other business. This means that at the end of every fiscal year, which runs from October 1 of the previous year through September 30 of the current one, Congress approves the amount of funding each department will receive to pay for staff and other day-to-day expenses. While the budgets are usually straightforward, lawmakers from both political parties often use the process to get their desired policies or special spending needs approved. Since these inevitably lead to extended debates, the funding deadline often gets pushed back. Most years, lawmakers approve short-term bills to keep agencies and departments operating until a longer-term agreement is reached.
The 2018-2019 budget process appeared to be moving smoothly until mid-December, when lawmakers, trying to approve funding for Homeland Security, disagreed on the amount to allocate for security along the Mexican border. Republicans wanted to set aside $5 billion to build a wall, while Democrats were only willing to approve an additional $1.3 billion to pay for the state-of-the art technology and increased communication capabilities recommended by experts. With the holidays approaching, the US Senate passed a short-term spending bill on Wednesday, December 19, 2018 to keep the affected departments running through February 8, 2019, giving lawmakers time to reach a compromise when they returned in the New Year. However, President Trump refused to sign the bill unless the Democrats agreed to fund the wall, leaving agencies scrambling to set in motion their plans to cease — or partially cease — operations by midnight December 21, 2018.
The partially closed government has the potential to impact Americans in numerous ways. Here are a few that you may have already noticed, or will soon notice as the shutdown drags on.
National Parks, Museums, and Monuments
The Interior Department, which overseas the country’s National Parks and monuments, is among the nine whose budget has not been approved. Unlike previous government shutdowns when the open areas were closed to the public, President Trump’s administration has opted to keep them open. However, with no money to pay the employees, the officials were forced to close all visitor centers, bathrooms, and campsites, and also halt trash collection. This has caused dangerous levels of garbage and human waste to pile up on roads and in campgrounds at the nation’s most pristine outdoor areas. The situation is so dire that on January 6, 2019, the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, made an unprecedented decision to use the entrance fees, collected by the parks for repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement, to pay for the clean-up.
Also impacted are museums like the National Archives, which has been shuttered since December 22, 2018. The 19 government-funded Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. and New York, as well as the National Zoo, managed to remain open during the holidays by using some leftover funds. However, the money ran out by January 2, 2019, leaving officials with no choice but to close them all.
The Internal Revenue Service
With less than half of the agency’s approximately 80,000 employees considered “essential,” the Internal Revenue Service has had no choice but to delay services usually handled by its “non-essential” staff. Among these are processing taxpayer refunds, providing potential homeowners with proof of income transcripts needed to obtain mortgages, answering tax-related questions, and conducting tax audits.
For most Americans, the shutdown is a mere inconvenience which impedes them from enjoying their favorite museum or going on a hike. However, for the 800,000 government employees who have not been paid since December 22, 2018, it has resulted in real hardship. About a third of them, considered “non-essential,” have been furloughed, or forced to take an unpaid leave of absence. While they have been paid their lost wages following previous shutdowns, there is no law to the effect and therefore no guarantee that it will happen this time around.
“Essential” employees, which include border patrol security and air-traffic controllers, have to report to work without pay. While they are guaranteed their salary, the money will not be given until a resolution is reached. As a result, many government workers are quitting their jobs or calling in sick frequently. Particularly affected is the Transport Security Agency (TSA), which manages airport security. The staff shortage is resulting in even longer delays at security checkpoints, causing many travelers to miss their flights.
Given that US officials are responsible for the shutdown, it would only seem fair that they also not get paid, until an agreement is reached. Unfortunately, their salaries are guaranteed under the US Constitution and, therefore, not subject to the annual budgetary process. Over the years, there have been some attempts by a few conscientious legislators, including the “No Government No Pay Act of 2018," to change this unfair law. However, the bills have failed to pass either the House or Senate.
With Congress back in session since January 3, 2019, the talks to reach an agreement have begun in earnest. However, as of Sunday, January 6, 2019, little progress had been made. With President Trump indicating he was willing to continue the shutdown, already the second longest in 40 years, for months, or even years if Democrats refuse to grant the wall money, the future remains uncertain. Hopefully, US lawmakers will reach a compromise, that will make both parties happy, soon.
Resources: NPR.gov, NBC.com, Theguardian.com,NBC.com.rollcall.com