Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What happens if the government shuts down?


Prepare yourself for a possible government shutdown. Unless Democrats and Republicans can resolve a long list of contentious issues by Friday — or put them off with another temporary fix — large parts of the federal government will stop working this weekend.

Core functions won’t be affected, so don’t worry about military preparedness or missing Social Security checks. But say goodbye to national parks, comprehensive oversight of disease outbreaks, any hope of getting a new passport, and a great deal more.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why are we at risk of a shutdown?

Congress still hasn’t passed a budget agreement for this year; instead, it has relied on a series of short-term funding extensions, called continuing resolutions. The latest one expires at the end of this week.


Only a bipartisan deal can solve this problem, since Republicans lack the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

But compromise remains elusive.

Both sides have stringent demands. Republicans want additional defense funding and new limits on immigration, while Democrats hope to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program and provide legal status for DACA recipients (unauthorized immigrants brought to America as children).

What does it mean for the government to shut down?

If this week’s talks fail, and a shutdown is triggered, nearly one million nonessential government employees would be sent home without pay — their responsibilities left uncovered.

That would create an immediate and concentrated economic problem for the D.C. area, where hundreds of thousands of those furloughed employees live and work.

By contrast, in Massachusetts there are only about 46,000 government workers in total, including many who wouldn’t be affected because they’re considered essential.

But no one would be immune to the interruption of routine government services. For as long as the shutdown continues, it would be difficult — and maybe impossible — to get advice from the IRS, enroll in Social Security, or apply for federal grants. And you should cancel that trip to Yosemite: Like other national parks, it would be closed.


Background activities you take for granted also would be affected, such as the enforcement of worker protections by the Department of Labor and the monitoring of air pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The longer a shutdown goes on, the broader the impact. That’s because some programs can draw on emergency funding for as long as the money lasts. Head Start classes for underprivileged preschoolers would gradually cease as supplemental funding dries up. Likewise for nutrition programs, certain veterans benefits, and potentially even federal courts.

How damaging is the economic fallout?

When the government enters shutdown mode, it spends less money. Ditto for workers sent home without paychecks. Add to that the canceled visits to national parks and government contracts going unsigned, and the economic effect could be substantial — even if furloughed workers ultimately get back pay for missed work, as they have in the past.
Analysts at the financial research firm S&P Global estimated that every week without government operations would reduce GDP by $6.5 billion.

How likely is a shutdown?

As of Tuesday morning, betting markets put the odds at about 1 in 3 — not impossible, but far from certain. The last shutdown was in 2013.

Perhaps the best reason for optimism is that a shutdown would be risky for both sides: No one knows how the public would apportion blame.


Republicans could be tarred as incompetent stewards, given that they control Congress and the White House. But President Trump is already honing his attack on Democrats, tweeting Tuesday that “Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security.”

Not to mention that there’s a relatively painless way out: another continuing resolution. Make it a month, or three, and both parties can continue working toward an acceptable bipartisan deal without the costs — political and otherwise — of a shutdown.

Still, there’s no question that government shutdowns have a certain dramatic appeal, allowing both political parties to demonstrate the strength of their commitments.

For Republicans, that means standing up for heightened military spending and tighter border security.

For Democrats, it’s about defending DACA recipients and ensuring equal treatment of nonmilitary programs.

Watching from the outside, perhaps the most we can ask is that somehow this drama ends in triumph rather than tragedy.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States.
He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.