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. Hopefully government shutdowns become less frequent. It feels like a bit of political theater creating major annoyances without being effective. It is not right for the legislative and executive branch to use federal employees as hostages in their impasses. If a CEO couldn’t agree with his CFO and no one in the business was paid until the dispute was resolved there would be major consequences. Hopefully in the future more reasonable minds are elected and government shutdowns become a thing of the past.

  2. Before this article, government shutdown was kind of a new topic to me, like I had heard about it but never understood really what it meant nor why everyone was so mad after the most recent government shutdown. I don’t really like the fact that the government can furlough people or make them work without pay, as that seems to violate a right as a citizen. The most recent government shutdown happened in 2019, and everyone I knew was talking about it, but I really didn’t understand what was going on or why it was such a big deal. I feel like this article explains a government shutdown really well and helps you really understand what happens when one occurs.

  3. Unfortunately, I have been directly affected by government shutdowns while in the military, and although service members are still paid, resources are put on hold which changes plans drastically depending on where you are located. Either way, government shutdowns can still affect the average citizen regardless of where they are employed. Because shutdowns are often undefined within the news, it’s important for students to realize their historical impacts and current effects. The politcal strategy involved in government shutdowns is a highly controversial issue that should be discussed academically within classrooms.

  4. In 2013 I was living in Elizabethtown, Kentucky and if you didn’t know it’s the town right next to Fort Knox. I would go on base 5 times a week for swim team and during the shutdown, they closed all gates in and out except for one of the gates and that one was out of the way back to town. I got to see first hand how it was affecting my community because most people who lived in Elizabethtown had a job working for the government. During the shutdown, people didn’t know when they could go back to work or when they would get their next paycheck. It was harder for average people to get on base during that. I knew people that didn’t work for the government but still worked on base and during that time it made it hard for those people to get to and from work. I’ve seen how it can affect people first hand and why government shutdown can cause more problems rather than solve them.

  5. The last paragraph said it perfectly, “the average person may not understand the outs and ends of a government shutdown” . I didn’t realize how many people are affected during a government shutdown. I remember hearing about government officials not getting paid but I never knew it could affect normal people who don’t really have anything directly connected to the government. I now understand the necessity of a government shut down, but there should be regulations against it.

  6. Before reading this article I was really confused on what all happens when the government shuts down. I always heard about the shut down but I never really knew what it actually means. Now that I have read this article I know exactly what it means and I know exactly what happens. I think it is very important for our society to know what happens with the government and why. You see so many lies on social media about the government that you don’t know what to believe so I think it’s very important that we take the time to get educated on this subject.

  7. Recently in our world I have been hearing more about the government and the shutdowns. Only a few months ago did the government actually shut down. At first I was confused on what that meant and why it happened. This article is important for people to read as I’m sure I wasn’t the only one confused. A lot goes into the whole process that many don’t know. It is not a very common thing for the government to shut down, but it does happen so it is important to know why and what happens.

  8. I am definitely one of those people who do not fully understand what a government shutdown is, and I still get confused about what it really is because politics can be very confusing. I love to learn more about our government because it’s essential for a citizen of any country to know about their political system, especially with one as unique as America’s. I’m not quite sure who the shutdown really benefits, so I hope that the future administrations will avoid it at all costs.

  9. I remember when someone told me the government was shut down I thought the government was open all the time. I never fully understood what the purpose was. I think there should be something that restricts how long the government is shut down, to help the people who it affects. This was very informative and helped me to better understand the affects government can have on the people.

  10. I never really knew what a government shutdown actually was until these past two years with trump in the office. I watched it affect some of my family and friends whose careers depend on certain government agencies. I understand why it happened. Because the argument of funding the wall being built. But, I think there should be a system in place that prevents this from going so far.

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