Politics Here's what happens during a government shutdown

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Here's what happens during a shut down of the federal government.

government shutdown lincoln memorial play

government shutdown lincoln memorial

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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  • A federal government shutdown began early Saturday morning after Congress failed to pass a bill to temporarily fund the government at current levels.
  • Essential operations will remain functional while nonessential services come to a halt.
  • Employees for non-essential services would be out on furlough, meaning they are locked out of work and receive no pay.


The federal government officially ran out of funding appropriations early Saturday morning, signaling the beginning of a partial government shutdown.

While Congress had days to avoid this fate, the negotiations over a funding bill failed late Friday night.

The midnight deadline did not technically begin the shutdown, but rather a lapse in appropriations, or funding, for the government. The trigger, however, came soon after from a memo sent by the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

This memo instructed federal agencies to begin to execute their contingency plans in the event of a lapse in funding, thus kicking off the shutdown.

So what exactly does that mean? Here's a rundown of all the biggest changes that happen during a government shutdown.

What it means for federal programs

All essential government services remain open. This means services like Social Security checks still go out and public-safety operations continue.

Other nonessential federal programs and branches do close during th shutdown and services like the issuance of new Social Security cards can cease.

These closures have serious consequences. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CFRB), during the 2013 shutdown the closure of national parks cost them an estimated $500 million in revenue. During the 1996 shutdown, as many as 10,000 possible Medicare recipients were turned away every day because the Department of Health and Human Services was not accepting new applicants. It appears HHS will take new applicants this time around.

Other programs that were affected, according to the CFRB, are:

  • Site inspections by the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration. These inspections are done for "sites that included hazardous waste, drinking water, and chemical facilities."
  • The Internal Revenue Service can't do Social Security number or income verifications, possibly delaying things like loan applications. Additionally, any tax refunds outstanding would be delayed. Given the IRS's scramble to manage the new GOP tax law, the shutdown could be especially damaging.
  • The National Institutes of Health stops funding grants for research and the Department of Health and Human Services stops sending welfare assistance to states.

What it means for federal employees

In many branches of government, most employees will still show up since they work for essential services.

For instance, in its 2015 shutdown preparation plan, the Department of Homeland Security said that 42,593 of the Coast Guard's 49,304 on-board employees would remain on the job. For the Secret Service, 5,785 of the agency's 6,507 employees were exempt from the shutdown that year.

Those employees who are affected are sent on what is called furlough — essentially a temporary lock-out from their jobs. During that time, employees do not receive paychecks and are not allowed to do any work. According to the CFRB, during the 2013 shutdown, around 850,000 of the 2.1 million federal employees that are not postal workers were placed on furlough.

Additionally, these employees are not technically entitled to back pay to make up for the work they are forced to miss. Typically, though, Congress passes legislation to fund back pay.

Here's a quick rundown of how many employees at major departments will be furloughed during the shutdown:

  • Commerce: 41,600 out of 47,900 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Defense (only applies to civilian workforce): 370,000 out of 740,000 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Education: 3,700 out of 3,900 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Environmental Protection Agency: 13,700 out of 14,400 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Health and Human Services: 41,000 out of 81,900 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Homeland Security: 31,200 out of 241,400 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Housing and Urban Development: 7,500 out of 7,800 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Interior: 56,600 out of 70,400 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Justice: 19,500 out of 114,600 total employees will be put on furlough
    • Of note, Robert Mueller's investigation will continue during the shutdown, as all employees in the Special Counsel's Office are in "excepted positions" and their funding does not come from an annual appropriation.
  • Labor: 12,800 out of 15,400 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Transportation: 20,500 out of 55,200 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Treasury Department: 48,500 out of 88,000 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Social Security Administration: 10,400 out of 63,200 total employees will be put on furlough
  • Veteran's Affairs: 15,900 out of 377,000 total employees will be put on furlough

Historical precedent

It is not the first time the government entered a shutdown — but the current one could have some unique characteristics.

Since the budget process was overhauled in 1974, there have been 18 government shutdowns. Most of these shutdowns were short-lived. Of the eight shutdowns during Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, none lasted more than three days.

The longest shutdowns were the past two — a 21-day shutdown from December 1995 to January 1996 and an 18-day shutdown from September to October 2013.

Employees being placed on furlough is also a less-common occurrence, with only seven of the 18 shutdowns resulting in furloughs. This was a more common practice in recent times, during all four shutdowns since 1990.

But one thing that is unique to the current shutdown is the party control of Congress and the White House. Republicans hold both chambers of the legislative branch as well as the presidency, which typically helps the government avoid a shutdown.

This is the first time that the government shut down under one-party control since the 1979 shutdown under President Jimmy Carter.

What's different this time around is that the government shutdown will include the employee furlough and disrupt many more operations than the funding lapses in the 1970s. In fact, it is the first shutdown under single-party control to have employees threatened with furlough.