Government shutdown: What does it mean and how can Donald Trump end the conflict?

Essential instruments of state remain open but many civil servants go unpaid as impasse over Mexico border wall funding continues

Samuel Osborne,Sarah Harvard
Friday 04 January 2019 15:22 GMT
Government shutdown: How does it work and will Trump’s border wall fight derail resolution negotiations

Donald Trump’s administration enacted a partial government shutdown at midnight on December 22 2018 after the Senate failed to break an impasse over the president’s demand for more funding to build a wall on the US border with Mexico.

With no deal in sight, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home that Saturday until Christmas Day, all but guaranteeing the shutdown would last until then.

The president cancelled his plans to spend Christmas in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago club due to the shutdown, and the first lady, Melania Trump, flew back to Washington to be with her husband.

But as the government shutdown reaches its 13th day on Friday 4 January, congressional leaders are bracing for another meeting with Mr Trump over the government shutdown and border security. Lawmakers described the anticipated meeting as an information session on border security and the impasse causing the shutdown.

The White House said that Mr Trump will participate “in a border security briefing for congressional leadership” held in the Situation Room.

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House Democrats pledged to go forth with their own strategy to fund the government and end the shutdown. Mr Trump implied on Twitter that he is willing to negotiate, but any deal must include full funding for his $5 billion pet project.

“Border Security and the Wall ‘thing’ and Shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as Speaker!” Mr Trump said. “Let’s make a deal?”.

How did the government shutdown start?

President Trump has insisted on $5 billion for his project, a cornerstone of his election campaign, but Democrats are fiercely opposed and have rejected his request.

Even a temporary measure to keep the government running while negotiations continued seemed out of reach in the run-up to Congress reconvening on 3 January 2019.

Financing for about a quarter of federal programmes – including the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture – have expired and will not be renewed until a deal is done.

How can the president and Congress end the government shutdown?

Any agreement to end the shutdown would require both the support of Democrats and the signature of Mr Trump.

Ms Pelosi pledged to pass legislation in the House of Representatives ordering the reopening of government should she return to Congress as speaker – and she has – but Mr McConnell has called such a bill “a total nonstarter”. The Republican-controlled Senate does have the power to block her but doing so would see them exposed to criticism and forced to take total responsibility for the hiatus.

The president has meanwhile savoured the prospect of a shutdown over his border wall for months, saying last week he would be “proud” to close the government.

He campaigned on a promise to build the wall and also promised Mexico would pay for it – a demand Mexico has staunchly refused.

Democrat Chuck Schumer met vice president Mike Pence on 29 December 2018 to discuss the issue at the request of the White House, according to the former’s office. But the senator’s spokesman said they remained “very far apart” on a spending agreement.

Mr Schumer said the “Trump shutdown” could end immediately if the president simply dropped his demand for money. “If you want to open the government, you must abandon the wall,” he said.

Democrats said they were open to other proposals that didn’t include the wall, which Mr Schumer said was too costly and ineffective. They have offered to keep spending at existing levels of $1.3bn for border fencing and other security.

But Mr Trump, entrenching his position, tweeted about to say ”the crisis of illegal activity” at America’s southern border is “real and will not stop until we build a great Steel Barrier or Wall”.

Which departments and agencies are closed as a result?

Virtually every essential government agency, including the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, will remain open. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers will staff airport checkpoints.

Social Security cheques will go out and troops will remain at their posts. Doctors and hospitals will receive their Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

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The US Post Office, as an independent agency, was still delivering mail. Passport services, funded by fees and not government spending, will also continue.

The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans’ health care and many other essential government programmes will run as usual. The Federal Emergency Management Agency can continue to respond to disasters.

Nearly 90 per cent of the Department of Homeland Security’s 240,000 employees will be at work because they are considered essential.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, which is investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, is unaffected by a shutdown.

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But hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be forced off the job and some services will go dark.

In the past, the vast majority of national parks were closed to visitors and campers, but beginning with the last government shutdown, in January, the Interior Department has tried to make parks as accessible as possible despite bare bones staffing levels.

Some are staying open thanks to funding from states and charitable groups.

How many civil servants are barred from working and do they still get paid?

More than 420,000 “essential” federal employees will work without pay until the dispute is resolved. Another 380,000 will be “furloughed”, meaning they are put on temporary leave.

The Senate had already passed legislation ensuring that workers will receive back pay, and the House was likely to follow suit.

Federal employees were already granted an extra day of holiday on Christmas Eve under an executive order Mr Trump signed last week.

Federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are related to national security or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property”.

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Of the 420,000 employees working without pay, about 41,000 are law enforcement and corrections officers. The Homeland Security employees who will keep working include about 150,000 from the Coast Guard, TSA and Customs and Border Protection.

The 380,000 furloughed employees include nearly all of Nasa and Housing and Urban Development and 41,000 from the Commerce Department. About 16,000 National Park Service employees – 80 per cent of the agency’s workforce – will also be put on temporary leave.

How many government shutdowns have there been, when was the longest?

Shutdowns happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each, while there were six shutdowns during Ronald Reagan’s two terms, typically lasting just one or two days.

Before a three-day gap during Mr Trump’s administration in January, when Democrats insisted any budget measure come with protections for young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” the most significant saw a 16-day partial shutdown in 2013 as Tea Party conservatives tried to block Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

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Mr Trump’s government also shut down for a few hours last February amid a partisan dispute over deficit spending.

The longest federal government shutdown, lasting 21 days, occurred in December 1995 and January 1996, triggered by conflicts between Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress over Medicare funding and government spending.

Additional reporting by agencies

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