We break down a potential shutdown: What will and won’t happen?

Yes, the federal government will likely shut down at midnight.

Temporary funding for the federal government will expire at midnight tonight (Jan. 19, 2018) unless both houses of Congress approve a temporary extension or a longer-term funding deal that includes several pieces of legislation that have been negotiated for the past couple of weeks. The House of Representatives yesterday approved a one-month Continuing Resolution (CR), the fourth since September 30, 2017, when the 2018 fiscal year began.

Were we expecting this shutdown? We at the American Psychological Association and many of our advocate colleagues assumed the party that controls majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House would work very hard to avoid a shutdown, since, let’s be honest, it looks bad. A government shutdown causing employee furloughs has never occurred under unified party control of Congress and the White House. Still, all the trends we have observed and written about over the past couple of years combine to make it very difficult for the congressional leadership to negotiate win-win deals.  These include the broken budget process (Budget Control Act of 2011) which makes passing any regular appropriations bills challenging due to strict spending caps, the Freedom Caucus wing of the Republican Party rebelling against the Republican leadership with the result that bills can seldom pass with only Republican votes, and the fact that so little legislation passing means that ‘must-pass” bills are freighted with controversial high-impact provisions.  

What are the sticking points of these negotiations? The House leadership says the only path to keeping the government open is for the Senate to approve the short-term CR. Senate Democrats are circulating a counter-proposal that would fund the government through Feb. 16, pass the DREAM Act (to stop deportation of and provide a path to citizenship for, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children), extend the expired Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), deliver $90 billion of disaster aid, and increase defense and non-defense spending by more than $50 billion apiece so that final appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018 can be approved.  The pending CR does include additional funding for CHIP and several other key public health programs. However, the bill neither raises the budget caps, nor shores up science funding. The Senate Republicans do not have the 60 votes to pass the short-term CR that the House approved, so some negotiation with the Democrats is necessary.

What happens during a shutdown? Each federal department is supposed to have a plan that governs how the shutdown will be implemented. Here is the Department of Health and Human Services plan.  For example, at the National Institutes of Health, grant program and management activity will be suspended and staff responsible for grant review and administration will not come to work. Only those involved with direct patient care at the NIH Clinical Center, animal care, and security of the physical plant will remain at work. The White House has some latitude over how stringently a shutdown is managed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will continue minimal support to protect the health and well-being of US citizens here and abroad, though its capacity to respond to outbreak investigations, process laboratory samples, and maintain the agency’s 24/7 emergency operations center would be reduced. The plan calls for CDC staff who are currently supporting the ongoing hurricane response to continue to respond to immediate and ongoing public health needs in the affected areas.

(See shutdown plans for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.)

Would a shutdown save any money? Probably not, judging by what happened in 2013, according to Nature:

“The GAO reports that 850,000 government employees — roughly 40% of the federal workforce — were “furloughed”, or ordered to stay home without pay. But Congress eventually approved about $2 billion in retroactive compensation for these workers, erasing any payroll savings.

“More broadly, a report released in November 2013 by the Obama administration concluded that the shutdown had led to 6.6-million lost work days for civilian federal employees, and prevented the creation of up to 120,000 private-sector jobs.”

With several hours left before the current funding expires, the President and Congress could yet make a deal that would avoid a shutdown. APA will provide additional information as soon as it becomes available. For more information please contact Pat Kobor in the Science Government Relations Office.