The US government shutdown: Questions and answers - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson

What is a US government shutdown?

The US government shutdown: Questions and answers

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 14 October

By Stephen Exley

The US government has been in shutdown since 1 October. Although talks have been ongoing about resolving the crisis, no agreement has yet been reached between the Democrats and the Republicans – the two parties that control American politics. This week is the deadline for an agreement to be reached if the US Treasury is not to run short of funds. If this happens, the US will default on its loans, which means it will be unable to pay back creditors that it has borrowed money from. Find out more about the shutdown below, including how the US defaulting could impact the global economy.

What is a US government shutdown?

A shutdown happens when the budget for running federal government departments expires and a new one has not been agreed. The budget for these day-to-day federal operations has to be approved by both chambers of the US parliament, the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together comprise Congress. When they fail to reach an agreement, a shutdown occurs.

Why has it happened?

Back in March, the House of Representatives – which is controlled by the Democrats, the party of President Barack Obama – and the Senate – dominated by the rival Republican party – failed to come to an agreement for a new budget. As a result, they passed a "continuing resolution", a short-term agreement, to buy them more time to strike a deal. This period, however, came to an end on 30 September. Despite days of negotiations, no agreement could be made between the chambers.

Why can't the House of Representatives and Senate come to an agreement?

The primary disagreement centres around funding for the Affordable Care Act, which has been dubbed "Obamacare". The Democrats say that this act will make health insurance better and cheaper for both US citizens and the government, while the Republicans argue that it will disrupt citizens' existing healthcare plans and increase government debt. The Republican-controlled Senate proposed spending less money on Obamacare but the president refused to agree.

The two chambers also disagree over whether the amount of money the US government owes to private companies and overseas governments should increase.

What happens during a shutdown?

All federal employees deemed to be "non-essential" are sent on unpaid leave until a deal is reached. The 350,000 employees affected include those who work at government-run national parks, museums and monuments, both in the US and overseas.

Several federal government agencies are also affected, meaning severe disruption for a number of government programmes, including flu vaccinations, food safety checks and education classes for families in deprived areas.

People who receive unemployment and veterans' benefits or government loans also face delays in receiving their money.

Has a shutdown occurred before?

Yes. There have been 18 government shutdowns since 1976, including this most recent one. Six of them occurred in the late 1970s, including three in 1977, but there have not been any since the 21-day shutdown in 1995-6 under then president Bill Clinton.

What impact is the shutdown having?

The value of the dollar has plummeted in recent days, with investors opting for safer currencies.

The shutdown is also having an economic impact around the globe. With many US businesses affected, other economies are missing out on billions of dollars of US cash, with developing countries most at risk.

What next?

The US Treasury has warned that the country must raise its debt limit by Tuesday or it will not be able to continue paying its creditors. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, said the world was "days away from a very dangerous moment".

Related resources

Who holds the power in the US political system?

  • In this lesson exploring the three branches of the US government, students consider which they think is most powerful.

History of the US

  • A brief snapshot of American history to use as an introduction to US politics.

The US political system

  • Help pupils understand how the US system is different from UK politics with these informative presentations.

President Obama

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Further news resources

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  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

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