I think it's important that we understand what a shutdown is and how it works before we go too deep into this current shutdown and whose fault it is. My dad has a Master's degree in Public Policy, taught American Heritage at BYU-I, worked as a federal contractor for 15+ years, and has been involved in various levels of City, County, and State government. So I talked with him on the phone to make sure that I could provided a nuanced and accurate answer for you all.
How Government Spending is Allocated
The fiscal year for the federal government starts on September 1st. The Federal Government operates under a budget that must receive approval from both houses of Congress and the President. All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, and then are passed on to the Senate and the President. I think that most people would agree that the Federal Government should operate under a budget. The idea of the Federal Government being able to spend whatever it wants is a scary idea. Forcing them to operate under a budget approved by our representatives is a way to ensure that we are being represented by our government and that they are constrained to the powers given to them under the Constitution.
Each individual agency and subsets of each agency have separate budgets and the house may propose a budget for any or all agencies. It is entirely possible to fund the Department of Defense without funding the National Forest service. This gives the government some flexibility in what gets approved when, and is an important point later on down the road.
What Happens When a Budget is Not Approved
What happens when a budget is not approved by September 1st? There are three options:
- Pass a partial or entire budget
- Pass a continuing resolution, which basically allows agencies to operate under last year's budget but without additional expenses such as new contracts or material purchases
- Halt spending entirely. This is the default option if neither options 1 or 2 occur
Of these three option #2 is what happens pretty much every year. With elections happening in November, basically no one is willing to vote on anything because all spending bills have to make compromises and concessions to both parties and it would be really easy for those running against them to attack any newly signed budget. So basically the government runs entirely on continuing resolutions every single year from September to December or January. Government agencies are pretty used to this by now and plan their budgets accordingly so that they can operate for several months under continuing resolutions. However sometimes the government runs for years at a time on continuing resolutions as was the case under the Obama administration.
Continuing resolutions are usually pretty harmless, but they can have negative side effects. My dad worked as a government consultant and the continuing resolutions allowed them to be paid for their current contracts, but eventually the contracts ran out and even though they had been awarded the bid for projects, the projects had not been approved in a new budget and my Dad basically became unemployed for over a year due to this. So while passing continuous resolutions is the easiest political move for both parties and is generally acceptable, extending continuous resolutions for a long time begins to become an issue.
Any agency that doesn't receive funding through either a continuing resolution or budget is not allowed to spend anything. As you can imagine, if they aren't allowed to spend anything, then they don't do anything. This is what we call a government shutdown.
As mentioned above, partial budgets can be passed and are usually passed in every shutdown. There are a few agencies that both parties agree are necessary enough that they don't mess with them too much even during a shutdown. For example, the budget for the Department of Defense has been put on continuing resolution because it turns out all of Congress thinks that suddenly having no soldiers would be a bad idea.
Government Shutdowns aren't anything new. My dad told me that every single presidential administration in his life time has had at least one shutdown. Getting people to agree upon things and compromise is hard, and government shutdowns are one way to force action. Sometimes shutdowns occur over important budget issues or sometimes they occur just because politicians are being petty. When Jimmy Carter was elected president there was a partial government shutdown for 6 months even though the Democrats had a majority in both houses of Congress and the White House because the Speaker of the House refused to meet with President Carter. So, while it is unfortunate that federal employees and citizens are being used as political capital, this isn't anything new.
The Current Government Shutdown
What is new about the current government shutdown is that we have broken the record for the longest government shutdown. The reason why a budget hasn't been passed is because the President of the United States has refused to sign any budget without allocating spending for the Department of Homeland Security to build a wall along the southern border, and the House hasn't passed any budgets that would fund the wall. The Republicans had a majority in all houses at the beginning of last year, but they didn't pass a budget and have since lost the majority in the House of Representatives (where all funding bills must originate) which has now made some form of compromise a much firmer reality.
This would be a pretty normal situation, but the President and the Republican Party have refused to sign continuing resolutions in order to force a budget to be signed. This means that most agencies have been shut down, as opposed to continuing resolutions.
Typically, this would also be a normal situation with minimum collateral damage. Federal Agencies give employees paid time off. Some time off can be rolled over into the next year, but the majority of it must be used or it is lost. Although the paid time off is by calendar year, the deadline to use paid time off is actually January 15th. The "use it or lose it" paid time off policy coupled with Christmas and New Year's means that most "non-essential" agencies are effectively shutdown in December and January anyways. When my dad was a consultant he planned on not being able to get any government work done between December 1st and the middle to end of January because most people were off on vacations.
The current shutdown is harsher though because some agencies that normally work during December and January and are usually funded by budget or continuing resolution even during partial government shutdowns have not been funded. The most dramatic of these is the Travel Security Agency, which operates under the Homeland Security Agency. Because the budget for the Homeland Security Agency is such a sticking point, a continuing resolution hasn't been granted to the TSA—even though it could be. The TSA is still forcing employees to work even though it can't pay them because it's really important for us to have airport security. Quitting would cause them to lose their jobs and pensions, but they don't get to sit at home either. This is one of the most dramatic side effects of the government shutdown, which is why the media focuses so much on it.
Whose Fault is it?
Technically it is the fault of pretty much everyone. Saying that it's everyone's fault is the lamest answer I could give, because it ignores both the fact that some people definitely have more power than others (i.e President Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi), and that the moral weight of certain people's decisions is higher than others (again both Trump and Pelosi), but it is true. The House of Representatives hasn't passed anything, and even if they did the Senate or President would likely shoot it down. We as a country elected all of these people. So in some way or another the blame is shared across a wide group of people.
Deciding who shares what part of the political and moral blame requires a much more nuanced knowledge of the situation than I currently have. Plus, while assigning all of the guilt to one person makes things easier and news stories entertaining, it ignores the messy nature of making policy and compromises for such a diverse nation. Now, that doesn't mean that I don't have a opinions. For example, I think that President Trump should extend DACA by executive order or agree to it without concessions. I also am against funding the wall, but ranting about that doesn't really do much to educate anyone and isn't going to change things.
Really, if you want to get down to it, this is all a result of the government put in place by the founding fathers. The government they designed was slow, inefficient, and required large amounts of compromise. This means that we don't always get the best results. Sometimes we end up with decisions that are simply bad for our country. However, the design of our government has checks and balances and helps limit terrible decisions. As much as we like to complain about the efficiency of our government, it's one of our greatest assets. For example, Trump has been President for over two years, he has had a majority in both the House and the Senate for most of that time and he still couldn't get the wall built. We definitely can improve, but I think it's important to realize that the government has been full of fighting, pettiness, and poor compromises for hundreds of years. As annoying as it is, that's actually part of what's good about our government and we need to give the founding fathers more credit for creating something that functions well even under the worst of circumstances.
What Should Be Done?
Obviously, a budget needs to be passed eventually. At the very least I would hope that the President and Congress are able to compromise enough to pass more continuing resolutions. Now, whether or not there should be a compromise, what would be the best compromise, and what would be the best compromise that we could realistically expect are entirely different questions.
Personally, I hope that the final budget includes a bill that would allow for the continuation of DACA. I also hope that either a budget or continuing resolution is passed for every agency in the near future. While both parties have a responsibility to do what they believe is right, failing to compromise is hurting citizens of the USA.
Another thing that needs to be done is for us as voters to hold our Representatives accountable. If you think your Representative has been making the right decisions you should re-elect them. If you think they haven't been making the right decisions you should call them or email them to let them know that they are doing a bad job and that your vote next election cycle depends on how they react to this situation. We may not individually hold the power that Pelosi or Trump hold, but collectively we do have power and if we don't exercise that power than we are more likely to get stuck with the wrong people in power.
TL;DR: The Federal Government hasn't passed a budget so they don't get to spend anything. It's good that the Federal Government has to follow rules, but sometimes that leads to federal workers not getting paid and that's bad. Everyone has a part of the blame. Both parties will need to make compromises to pass a budget. This isn't anything new, but hopefully they handle things well because their indecision and lack of compromise is hurting American Citizens.
Hope this helps!