• Max Honzik

The Shutdown is OVER, Now What?

The United States; the land of the free, home of the brave and close friend with government shutdowns, or so it seems lately. What is "government shutdown", why did it happen, who did it affect and what can we expect going forward? All good questions, let's dive in.

According to a NY Times article on the history of government shutdowns, the U.S. is no stranger to shutting down, which feels weird to say as Americans are raised in an atmosphere of "American exceptionalism". To have a government that has shutdown 21 times since 1976 can feel a little unsettling and conflicting for those that believe America is the best country in the world.

Government shutdowns became more and more frequent in the 1970's as the Budget and Impoundment Control Act was put into law in order to give Congress (a body made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives) more control of budgetary issues. While budgets may seem boring and merely procedural, having control over budgetary policy is vastly IMPORTANT.

Capitol Hill

As with any new idea that has been pitched to the American people as a way to improve the country, for example universal healthcare or a border wall, these ideas cost money. Historically, the biggest issue for any party or president in realizing their agenda, goal or campaign promise has been funding. Healthcare isn't cheap nor is building a 1000-mile wall on the southern border so having control over budgetary policy is crucial. And also the cause of many government shutdowns.

Each year Congress has to approve a new budget to fund the government, and when Congress cannot agree on how to fund the government, i.e. how much money should be allocated for different projects or departments, then the government shuts down. In the case of this 2018 - 2019 shutdown, President Donald Trump was offered a new spending bill for the year and used his executive powers to veto the bill. And yes, you guessed, the bill didn't pass into law, therefore, it failed and the government shut down. The sticking point was the border wall as the bill that crossed his desk did not fund his campaign promise.

Many people fail to realize what a shutdown, in this case a "partial shutdown", actually means and how it could impact them. The biggest issue, which has gotten the most attention from the media, is that without a plan on how to fund the government, there is no plan on how to pay people who work for the government. So after a prolonged shut down like this one, non-essential governmental personnel are furloughed until further notice and essential personnel, who are fundamental in the daily functioning of the government, are required to work without being paid. That is bad. Really, really bad. Some might think that government workers have super secure, well-paying jobs, but that isn't the truth. As reporting by major news organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times has discovered, many people are living paycheck to paycheck. According to the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union that represents about 700,000 workers, a federal workers average weekly take-home pay is about $500. The shutdown was prolonged enough for those people to miss their paychecks. Mortgages and credit card bills went unpaid.

Uncertain on how to put food on the table or pay heat bills, people working for the wealthiest government in the world, were treated like second-class citizens.

The effects of the shutdown went far beyond just employees of the government. Without funding to key departments of the government like for example Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, the Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, and the Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency regular Americans weren't getting the services the government normally provides, services many Americans aren't aware of. The Food and Drug Administration stopped routine food inspections and research efforts for life-saving medication. National Parks began to decay as trash piled up, while park staffers were furloughed. Hundreds of TSA workers, tasked with ensuring safe air travel, called in sick rather than working without pay. Disaster relief efforts in places like Florida and California were put on hold. The list goes on and on and on.

As can be seen, the government shutdown effects compounded over time. This should force lawmakers into a crisis-mode, where negotiation and finding consensus are typically more attainable. This shutdown was different.


President Trump, after two years in office, realized that he had passed his golden window of legislative opportunity. He missed his big chance to secure funding for his wall, when his party controlled the executive and legislative branches of the government during the first half of his presidency. The midterm elections gave the House of Representatives to Democrats, who previously were the minority in both the House and the Senate. That coupled with the increasing number of Democrats announcing 2020 presidential campaigns, pressured mounted on Trump to deliver on his mantric campaign promise to build that wall. The biggest barrier for that wall; Nancy Pelosi.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi via Rolling Stone

When Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, they re-elected Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House, the leader of this chamber of Congress. Her path to re-election wasn't always set in stone as prominent new members of the new freshmen class, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, originally opposed her running for Speaker again. They saw her as the epitome of the establishment, the very thing their populist platforms campaigned against. However, just like many other congressional freshmen, they fell in line and Pelosi reclaimed her throne.

Noticing that securing wall funding would become extremely difficult with Pelosi as Speaker, Trump began to dig in and use unconventional methods, something not so uncommon for a president who rarely adheres to precedent. Potentially his most prominent example was the use of his first prime-time national address to discuss what he called a "crisis" as the southern border. Typically an address of this stature is used to relay breaking news to the American people directly, whether that be the nation's decision to go to war or the deliverance of justice on terrorists, such as those who committed 9/11. Trump, however, went on national television to speak about the situation at the border with illegal immigration, a crisis many experts have agreed is either manufactured or exaggerated. Relying heavily on emotional appeal, it was with the facts that President Trump was less clear. According to a fact check by NBC News, Trump made numerous false or misleading claims about the wall and the situation at the southern border. While alarming that the President does not view facts and clarity as inherently important when addressing the nation in his first prime-time address, the already atypical address was followed by a direct response from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That has never been done before, and furthermore, highlights that the hijacking of TV airwaves was merely a political stunt to drum up support for a border wall.

This shutdown was, above all else, a showdown. But who won?

Well, strategically speaking, the democrats had always been in a better place than Trump during the shutdown. For one, it was Trump's decision to shutdown the government. Moreover, their messaging to the American public had always been focused around first reopening the government so that hard-working Americans can get paid, while negotiations around border security can continue. The longer the shutdown lasted, the more Trump felt the burn. This polling number suffered as well. By averaging data gathered from various pollsters, specifically Fox News, Ipsos, Marist, Morning Consult and YouGov, Trump's approval ratings have taken a hit. And a significant one at that. Over half of Americans blame Trump for the shutdown and his net approval rating (a combination of approval and disapproval ratings) is -14.8, a drop of nearly four points from a month ago.

Although the data shows damage in the confidence of the president, Democrats are not walking away unscathed either. According to the same polls, somewhere near 30% of the American people find them at fault for the shutdown. The only group that seems to have flown under the radar during this whole ordeal was, ironically, the republicans. Whether or not that bodes well for the party as a whole or not remains to be seen; however, the major players in the shutdown, namely the democrats and Trump, did shoulder the blame with Trump taking the majority of it.

Jan. 24 and 25 were the definite tipping point for the ongoing shutdown. The effects of the shutdown really began to rear their ugly head, most notably as air traffic controllers began to call-in sick, causing major safety concerns and delays at some of the nation's biggest airports. That coupled with yet another pay period sans paycheck for hundreds of thousand of suffering federal workers and multiple failed attempts to pass border wall funding through a republican-controlled senate, Trump gave in.

His strategy of taking the government hostage and putting his wall at the center of all legislative discussion proved to not be as effective as he has hoped. As he signed a short-term spending bill into law on Jan. 25, he tweeted a signal that this defeat would not be the end of his quest for a border wall. He warned that 21 days, the three weeks that the new spending bill is reopening the government for, is a lot faster than most people think. In typical Trump fashion, he tweeted, "We will build the Wall!"