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. The article that I chose for this assignment was What is a Government Shutdown? What will happen. The way the government gets shut down is when; there is a “lack of approval with the federal budget.” Or if congress fails to pass legislation; or if the president doesn’t sign a appropriations bill.
    I always knew that a government shutdown took place because there isn’t any money in the budget to have something done or approved; but I never knew that it could also be due to the fact that the president refuses to sign a bill or congress not passing a legislation on it. This is why in the introduction of this article it says “an important component in operating a well functioning democracy is an educated citizenry.” The quicker and better we educated ourselves, the more informed we are; and how we can play a role in affecting a government shutdown.

  2. Don’t get me wrong I have heard many times where the government has been shut down but I never knew exactly what that means or what has to happen for it to be shut down 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 was 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.

  3. It was nice to read about how a government shutdown occurs and what leads up to it. Many people do not understand how that works and for some the knowledge will help them to stop blaming this person or that and understand the whole picture. I believe the average person can be affected either through the shutdown of government funded programs or even in their career choices. I have many friends who work for the government and have been affected with the lack of pay and trying to figure out a way to make ends meet. I do believe those people are the ones most affected and that Congress should be held responsible for the shutdown but at the same time who is to say they are wrong in their decision and who is to say they are right? We all should research and gain more knowledge before we point fingers.

  4. This article was extremely interesting to me. I had very little understanding as to how or what happened during a government shutdown. It’s really disappointing to think there are people that are working without pay. I recently came home from a trip to Miami and the airports had several terminals that had been closed due to employees calling off and not them not getting paid. It’s disappointing. People has families they need to take care of and they aren’t getting paid to support their families.

  5. I did not understand the full significance of a government shut-down, especially the one currently happening, and this article gave a great explanation. I did not realize how many people are affected by this other than the people directly in the white house. It is a slightly alarming that this has happened 3 times in Trump’s two years of office. Hopefully it does not become a trend so government working citizens do not miss another paycheck.

  6. 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?

    This article was such an interesting read for me. I do not follow up on politics but my cousin and sister had told me about Trump “shutting down the government”. This was bizarre to me because I did not know that was even possible. After reading this article, I definitely learned a lot. It is not all Trump. Yes, he is a reason for it, but there’s so much more that goes into it. Trump did not single handedly shut down the government on his own. The government had shutdown because of a disagreement and because Congress was unable to pass legislation to support the wall. It is a whole group and process, not just one person. After reading this article, I realized my cousin and my sister had seen the media’s point of view and what the press puts out. The average person who does not know much about how Congress, politics, and the government works, would not know the whole side of it all and this is why I was so intrigued reading this.
    A government shutdown could negatively affect the average person who would be receiving money from the government. For example, retired folks who receive social security, people who get money back during tax season, and people who need a government loan.
    The people who would be affected most by the government shutdown would be those who work for a part of the government that would be most affected by the shutdown. I think those 420,000 employees who are forced to work without pay would be most impacted because they would not be able to pay their bills and take care of their families and themselves.
    Like I stated in the beginning, it takes more than just one person to shutdown the government so I do not think Congress should be held accountable. As stated in the article, “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 government shutdown can occur both ways, if too many legislations are passed and if a disagreement happens and a legislation cannot be passed.

  7. I found this article very interesting, as I did not know everything that can cause the government to shutdown. To answer the question, should Congress be held accountable for the shutdown, I think it goes both ways. In this last instance on why the government had shut down, I have mixed feelings on the situation. In one way I do think Congress is at fault because President Trump is fighting for border security, and I do agree with him that maybe a wall would help. With that being said, Trump was asking for A LOT of money, I believe 5 billion. If I’m correct the shutdown was because Trump and Congress could not come to an agreement on the cost of it. In one way I think Congress should have just accepted and gave it to him, but in another way I thought of it as “Well maybe Trump should stop being a baby and just accept what Congress is willing to give him.” I know it could go both ways, and I think the easiest way to have avoided all this was they meet in the middle and move on. I would say they are both at fault, and if they could just work better and get along, then perhaps there would have been no shutdown and everyone could have worked and been paid without running into any issues.

  8. I found this article to be very informative. Before reading this article I did not know much about the government shutdown or why it was occurring. I would hear each side blaming the other and tune the whole situation out. This article allow me understand the meaning behind a government shutdown and what it means to the citizens. I also did not realize there were that many federal employees that were effected. The whole process still seems a bit stupid to me, but at least I know what is going on.

  9. I knew and have known that the government has been shutdown for some time now, although I really did not know why to be honest. This article was very educational for me, because I really did not know much about it at all. What I got from this article is that the government shutdowns when those in the executive and legislative branches do not agree upon the same things in funding. Which to me sounds ridiculous, because then the government is forced to shutdown and affect everyone’s lives. I personally know people that work for TSA and the government and have been working without pay, which I could not even imagine. That is ridiculous, and there need to be a change in the government immediately.

  10. Until I read this article, I had not read or understood much about the government shut down. I have heard a lot of controversy surrounding this topic, but I had not done much research yet. I think the most frustrating part for me is the amount of people that have had to go without receiving a paycheck. I personally know a few families suffering from being without an income for so long.

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