What is a Government Shutdown? What Will Happen?

Construction cones stand along the sidewalk at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 19, 2018. (AP /Susan Walsh)

David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

When there is a lot of bi-partisan discord between the executive and legislative branches surrounding passing end of year spending legislation we often begin to hear about the possibility of a government shutdown. It is important that American citizens understand what this means. What makes a democracy successful is when citizens understand their rights and the various processes that take place in the government as well as their civic duties. An important component in operating a well functioning democracy is an educated citizenry.

When Does a Government Shutdown Occur?
A government shutdown takes place in the United States when nonessential offices of the government close due to a lack of approval on the federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. More specifically, when congress fails to pass legislation or the President does not sign an appropriations bill that would fund certain federal government operations and agencies a shutdown occurs. Sometimes the case is that the opposing party in Congress disagrees with the president and refuses to pass the spending legislation. For example, republican senators may refuse to vote for certain spending legislation that a democratic president wants to pass, this would trigger a government shutdown. NOTE: An appropriations bill is legislation in the United States Congress to appropriate federal funds to specific federal government departments, agencies and programs. The money provides funding for operations, personnel, equipment and activities.  

If Congress passes all of the spending bills connected to the federal budget, a shutdown can be circumvented. However, if they cannot come to an agreement a government shutdown will occur. A shutdown will close many of the federally funded operations, stopping the work for federal employees that are deemed non-essential. Some non-essential organizations can stay open for a short amount of time running on cash reserves. However, when the reserve funds runs out the organizations close. This sort of stalemate continues until an agreement is reached within Congress or with the President and a budget bill is passed. In the recent shutdown of late fall 2018, President Donald Trump asked for federal funding to build a wall along the Mexican border, but Congress has not been able to pass legislation to support it, this triggered a government shutdown.

Government Shutdowns Have Happened Before
A shutdown is not new to the federal government, but it’s unusual for them to happen when one party controls the White House and Congress; this is the case for the Trump administration. In fact, because of sharp disagreements between both parties on spending, a shutdown has happened three times during his nearly two years in office. The recent shutdown has caused federal employees to be furloughed. This has not happened since 1974.

What are the Effects of a Government Shutdown?
Government shutdowns can affect many of the everyday government processing functions, including recruitment of law enforcement officers and the processing of social security cards and passport applications. Also, some functions of banks are affected by the shutdown, even though they are not government-controlled. Financial institutions cannot access information needed such as income tax records which may impact their ability to process new small business loan applications. Another possible affect might be that, payments from government sources to recipients of veterans’ benefits or unemployment insurance may be temporarily put on hold. In the fall 2018 shutdown triggered by the Trump administration more than 380,000 federal workers have been put on furlough and another 420,000 employees were forced to work without pay.

There can also be indirect effects of a government shutdown. It could impact other sectors of society besides the government, such as the business sector. In the fall 2018 shutdown, more than 380,000 federal workers have been put on furlough and another 420,000 employees were forced to work without pay. When federal workers are on furlough and as a result not spending, this could cause a loss of revenue within the businesses they normally would have patronized. The overall cost and impact on the economy as a result of a furlough can be devastating. Some shutdowns in the past have cost the economy as much as $20 billion, however some may not be as costly. Offices that do not receive funding from Congress can continue operating during a shutdown such as the Federal Reserve, the Post Office, active prison guards, police and firefighters, border patrol agents, air traffic control and active military.

The average US citizen may not understand the ends and outs of a government shutdown; many people may not realize what it means at all. The social studies classroom is a great way to educate students on this aspect of the American government. Below some teacher resources are provided to help social studies teachers create a curriculum highlighting key aspects of government shutdowns.

Teacher Resources/ Lesson Plans


  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)- Standard 6 Power, Authority and Governance: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.”
  • High School Ohio Social Studies Standards: American Government Theme: Students examine the Founding Documents which form the basis for the United States of America and how the American people govern themselves at national, state and local levels of government is the basis for this course. Students may also impact issues addressed by governments through service learning and senior projects.
  • Eighth Grade Standard ROLES AND SYSTEMS OF GOVERNMENT Content Statements: 22. The U.S. Constitution established a federal republic, providing a framework for a national government with elected representatives, separation of powers, and checks and balances. 23. The U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ rights by limiting the powers of government.

    Questions for discussion:
  • What ways can a government shutdown affect the average person?
  • What persons or citizens might be affected most by the government shutdown?
  • Should Congress be held accountable for the government shutdown?

Teacher Resources/Sample Lessons

Teaching Toolkit: 9 Resources for Discussing the Government Shutdown

2013 Government Shutdown – Database of K-12 Resources

Five Ways to Teach the Shutdown

Government Shutdown: A Teacher’s Guide


Need-to-Know: Government Shutdown!


The Government Shutdown and K-12 Education: Your Guide



Government Shutdowns Are Rare When One Party Controls White House, Congress. President Trump is On His Third

Government Shutdowns in the United States


In Pictures: The Latest Government Shutdown


Here is Every Previous Government Shutdown, Why They Happened and how They Ended


Schumer Demands Trump ‘Abandon the Wall’ as DC Faces Shutdown Stalemate.

Government Shutdown 2018


What Happens During a Government Shutdown? 7 Things You Should Know


Why the Government Shutdown Actually Costs Money?


The government shutdown is here. How does it affect you?


Government Shutdown 2018 and 2013 Explained




  1. I enjoyed all of the information that was in this article. I knew that the government could shut down, but it was nice to get the information in better detail. I think that the government being about to shut down because they all don’t agree on something is very concerning. I also enjoyed the article because I did not know that government shut downs could cost so much money. I don’t think that the government should be able to shut down over a disagreement and cause people to not get their pay checks.

  2. I was not aware that the government shutdown had forced 420,000 workers to work without pay. I was aware of the shutdown, and have heard how it does affect families and those receiving government assistance. I think it is awful to have to worry about how people are going to feed their families. I found this article to be very informative to get a more understanding on how everyone is being affected.

  3. Don’t get me wrong I have heard many times where the government has been shutdown but I never knew exactly what that mean or what has to happen for it to be shutdown and for so long over not approving something. When I was reading something it talked about how so many thousands of people were out of a job or still had to go into work but were not getting a paycheck. The legislature needs to come together and agree so that the government can re-open and get those people back to work with a steady paycheck.

  4. I never fully understood what a government shutdown meant, why it happened, it who it really affects. As a military veteran’s dependent I know understand that my family is directly affected when I had no idea. My father gets veteran benefits that are now being affected because of the shutdown. It was also shocking to hear that this is shutdown number three for Trump in his short 2 years of office. This article was very informative and helpful in understanding what our country is going through.

  5. This is a very important time in history and it is very cool, I guess, that we get to live during this time. I have heard several news stories about families being affected by the shutdown, they aren’t getting paid therefore they have no money to get food or pay their mortgage. I believe the things most affected by the shutdown is things like parks and museums. Also, the FDA has slowed down on their routine food inspections.

  6. I found this article very informative. I know many people that are working for free right now or not working at all, but I never fully understood why. Now I understand the basics of government shutdowns and how it impacts not only government employees, but society as a whole. I also found it interesting on how costly the shutdowns are. If the shutdown occurred due to a funding issue, shutting down the government seems kind of counterproductive.

  7. It is very concerning to me as an American that the government can shut down government agencies all because of a dispute between one another. A shut down often makes me think about those who aren’t being paid. I think about people who work very hard to be barely able to put food on the table and their government telling them to hold on for money to feed their families, all while forcing them to continue working. To me I think of how the government would treat us if we took money from them, they would make us pay interest. I think another reason I get frustrated about this topic is that a government shutdown doesn’t directly affect any of the people making the decision they still get to go home to a warm meal and well-fed children. Maybe if they knew what they were doing to other people and understood what it felt like to be forced to work without payment not knowing when pay will return maybe they would be more conscious to call for a shutdown.

  8. While government shutdowns have happened before, this one seems specifically detrimental due to the sheer number of federal employees not being paid, or being forced to work without pay. If 420,000 government officials were forced to work without pay in any other country, we would call the government oppressive, and their unpaid labour indentured servitude. It is worth regarding the uniqueness of this shut down due to one its length but two, that congress and the executive branch are from the same party and therefor should be working towards the same goals. This government shutdown between a single party shows the strive and division in the republican party, but also within the nation as a whole.

  9. A government shutdown that I had heard of but I guess never really understood. This article was very eye opening to me to learn the details of what is actually happening in our country. Though Trump is not the first to cause a government shutdown it does seem that it has never been for such an outlandish reason. I feel that this government shutdown is putting us in a vulnerable state.

  10. This is a very interesting article to me because I don’t know much about what is happening with it, I never knew that the government could shut down because they don’t approve something. I think it is not okay to shut down the government for the many reasons given in the article, it’s just crazy. In the article, it said 420,000 employees were forced to work without pay and that is nonsense! We shouldn’t be putting people out of pay over a disagreement. 

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