A sign indicates that the Lincoln Memorial and all national parks are closed from 1 October. Photo:Getty.
Show Hide image

What happens during a US government shutdown?

Ten things to expect.

Donald Trump's obsession with "building a wall" on the US-Mexico border is threatening to bring the US government to the halt. If the President refuses to sign a bill which does not include funding for this project, Americans could see a repeat of 2013.

Then, the US government went into shutdown for the first time in 17 years as Congress failed to agree new budget. So what happens when government spending stops?

1. 800,000 public sector workers are sent home

Around 800,000 of the 2.1 million people working in the public sector will be sent home with no pay. There is no guarantee that they will be compensated for these lost earnings, although they were following shutdowns of 1995-1996. Those who will be retained are “essential staff” like the police and law enforcement officers, immigration services, those overseeing nuclear safety, dams and power lines, and rescue services.

2. Rubbish collection stops in Washington DC

Because Washington DC is a federal district that needs permission from Congress to spend money, services like rubbish collection, street cleaning and libraries will be shut down. Schools and public transport will continue running, however.

3. National parks, museums and galleries will shut

US national parks and museums, galleries, zoos and landmarks run by federal government will close, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, the National Zoo, and the Washington Monument.  Only essential staff will go into work, included those needed to protect “life and property” and, in the case of the National Zoo, to feed the animals. Holidaymakers currently camping in National Parks will be given 48 hours to leave, while day-trippers will be made to leave immediately.

4. Air travel continues as usual, but passport applications may not be processed

Air traffic control and airport security staff will continue to work. In 2013, airport authorities said travellers needn’t worry about longer waits at security. Passport applications will continue to be accepted until money runs out. However, in 1996, applications eventually stopped being processed, with hundreds of thousands of applicants affected. 

5. Citizens face administrative delays

Staff cutbacks at the Internal Revenue Services mean audits will stop and no one will be able to assist if people have questions about their taxes. Benefits for pensioners and military veterans are likely to be delayed because of staff cutbacks. Permits for guns are unlikely to be processed, and more worryingly, small businesses applying for loans won’t have them processed.

6. The US economy suffers

The shutdown in the 1990s was estimated to have cost the US government $1.5bn. According to Standard and Poor's , a rating agency, the 2013 shutdown cost the economy $24bn

7. Some Department of Health Services are shut down

Notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be forced to cut back their services, so they will be less able to respond if there's a disease outbreak.

8. The military will keep working

On-duty military staff will carry on working. In 2013, an emergency bill passed two hours before the shutdown will protect their pay. Around half of civilian members of the defence forces won’t be reporting to work at all.

9. The post office will run as usual

The post office will continue to work, because it is funded by stamp sales and postage fees, and therefore not dependent on federal government cheques.

10. The squabbling politicians who triggered the crisis will still get paid

The salaries of senators, representatives, and President Donald Trump won’t be affected.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.