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 never really understood in the past why the government what shut down and what it meant when it did so this was very informative. I find it interesting that it is mainly because of disagreements when it comes to the budget and spending. I also didn’t realize the effects it had on people. It amazes me that so many people had to work without pay and I think government shutdowns need to be avoided.

  2. The fact that the government can just shut down and not do its job while suspending pay for regular government workers is infuriating to me. I had multiple friends affected by the most recent shutdown and I saw multiple posts circulating social media about regular people being severely negatively impacted by the shutdown and were unable to buy basic necessities. I just could not believe that all of these people were suffering because a giant man-baby couldn’t get funding for his ineffective wall plan.

  3. It was very interesting to learn about government shut downs. Trump’s presidency is the first time I have heard about them and I honestly had no idea what they meant. I never knew that shut downs were done due to financial reasons. I have been told and heard that the government shut downs we’ve been having are due to the funding of the Mexican border but this put it more into perspective. I know someone who was affected by the shut down that occurred around Christmas time so this made it a more personal matter for me.

  4. I think government shutdowns are no laughing matter, but the sad reality is that it shows how reliant we are on the government when in reality I sometimes think government shutdowns so the opposite. We have become so reliant on the government that fear drives the media that chaos and anarchy are in hot pursuit. I think its a travesty and far from what our forefathers intended for this country that we have become so reliant on it.

  5. Every time I hear government shutdown I am never really concerned because I don’t know much about it and I feel like I have never been personally affected by it. But after reading this article I can see why you say that it is so important to understand what a shutdown is and that it can affect us all. It is surprising to me that educating the youth about things such as government shutdown isn’t more of a priority? At least in my experience it wasn’t. In a way a government shutdown almost sounds like somewhat of a childish occurrence that could be avoided which in turn could save many people from being affected and save our economy from a huge potential loss.

  6. This article was both very interesting and informative to me. Until the recent government shut down, I was not aware that the government could completely shut down simply because the president could not get others to agree with him. That is both scary and sad that someone has that much power. While I do understand using your power to make a point to better the country, I don’t understand making others suffer in the process. I think about families who work for the government who must go without pay but continue to come to work in order to keep their position. Or those who depend on government funds such as food stamps to survive. How is this fair to them when they have no say so or control in whether Trump gets his way or not? The most recent shut down has affected people close to my family so I have seen the devastation first hand. Surely there must be another way.

  7. I have always heard of what a shutdown was and why they are in place but I actually didn’t know that there were more shutdowns under Trump than the recent one that just happened.

  8. This article stood out to me because I never actually understood the whole government shutdown and how it could affect the people around me. I originally thought that the government shutdown only affected the government and not the people that work for the government as well. This article was very eye opening because it hits home for so many people that were not getting paid for weeks on end but still working. I also thought it was very surprising that other presidents have also issued a government shutdown but it wasn’t highly known because the shutdown was for such short time period. After reading this article I better understand the government shutdown and how it affects the people around us in our hometowns.

  9. I chose this article because of how relevant it is to our lives, not just at the time it was written, but also because it will probably be relevant to our lives again sooner or later. I did not realize how uncommon it was since the house and congress are controlled by the same party. Also, I found it interesting to read about the effects of a shutdown and how many people it truly effects. Now that I know more about it, the idea of it sounds even worse to me and I do not believe that it should be allowed these adult politicians should not be allowed to have their inability to agree affect those who do not have a choice and their families.

  10. Before reading the article I wasn’t entirely sure what was entailed with a government shutdown. This really helped me better understand what exactly it is and how it not only affects government agencies but the employees as well. It can leave them without a job or income for as long as the government shutdown lasts.

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