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What happens if the government shuts down? Faculty experts explain

The U.S. government is going to run out of money on Friday. That is, unless lawmakers pass a stopgap measure that would extend government spending through Dec. 22, giving them two extra weeks to negotiate a more permanent budget.

Tied up in the same Congressional rancor that’s stymying a budget deal is funding for two crucial community healthcare programs. Their existing federal funding ran out weeks ago, and they’ve been squeaking by on state aid since.

What a government shutdown might look like

So, if the government does indeed shut down, what would that actually look like?

“It’s essentially a partial halt to many of the functions the federal government performs on a daily basis,” said Costas Panagopoulos, political science professor at Northeastern. Roughly 40 percent of government employees would get sent home without pay.

“Whether they’d be paid retroactively is unclear,” Panagopoulos added.

While essential government functions, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Postal Service, would continue running, a shutdown would “create problems for citizens who are trying to interact with the federal government in any way,” Panagopoulos said.

Trash collection in Washington, D.C., would stop. Passport applications wouldn’t be processed. Certain agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would be temporarily shuttered. National parks would be closed.

Popular healthcare programs ‘sputtering to the finish line’

Federal funding for community health centers and for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which together service millions of people, ran out on Sept. 30. A plan to renew that funding is tied into the stalled budget negotiations.

“These are massively important health programs that are just sputtering to the finish line,” said Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law and director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern. “For these programs, it’s like driving your car after the gas light has gone on. There’s a little left in the tank, but not for long.”

Tucked into that potential stopgap bill could be funding for these major healthcare programs, Parmet said.

In a deeply divided Congress, however, whether or not legislators will be able to pass a budget or a spending extension remains to be seen.

Should lawmakers be unable to negotiate a temporary spending plan and the government is forced to shut down, it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.

So, why is talk of a government shutdown more frequent?

“This is a symptom of our fractured and polarized current political system,” Panagopoulos said. “We now have politicians who are willing at times to accept the very drastic measure of a government shutdown, whereas in the past, everything possible would have been done to avoid this.”

In other words, politicians now are willing to use a looming government shutdown as an opportunity to “point the finger of blame at the other side,” Panagopoulos said, in the hopes of gaining enough political capital to “get the kinds of budget concessions they’re looking for.”

The strategy comes with considerable political risk.

“We’re living at a time when approval ratings for members of Congress—and for the president—are at historic lows,” Panagopoulos said. “A shutdown at this point could trigger further erosion of public confidence in public officials to do the most basic function of what they were elected to do, which is to keep government running.”