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What is a Government Shutdown? how many have been there in the US history?

There could be a partial shutdown as soon as midnight on Thursday but they are nothing new for a political system fraught with systemic problems.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters following the Senate Democrats weekly policy lunch at the US Capitol in Washington, US.
Elizabeth FrantzReuters

The prospect of a government shutdown tomorrow is very real. The debt ceiling limit expires at midnight tonight and if an extension or suspension is not passed, then we could be looking at a shutdown similar to that of three years ago.

Shutdowns are nothing new in US politics, but since the 1990s they have become more frequent and more damaging. The Democrats need to get the ceiling lifted or their whole agenda could be at risk, not only affecting the Americans the agenda seeks to help but also damaging the Democrat chances of winning the midterm elections next year.

This is all down to a quirk in the way the US is governed that no other country has to deal with.

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How many times has a shutdown happened before?

There have been a total of ten government shutdowns in US history, ranging from just four hours to 35 days. The first was in 1980, when the Federal Trade Commission had to be shut down for a day after Congress failed to pass a bill for the agency.

The most costly in history was the shutdown over the holidays of 2018 to 2019 which lasted for 35 days, costing an estimated $11 billion. This due to President Trump wanting to grant extra funding for his border wall, but the Senate was determined to stop it happening.

Why do they exist?

Shutdowns happen because Congress is the only body responsible for the allocation of government funding. This means if Congress cannot pass a budget, the president does not have the power to unilaterally decide on funding.

There is a backdoor, called the continuing resolution, which can temporarily fund the government. This has been put forward by Chuck Schumer and would solve the short term budget deficit. However, such a move would not alleviate the problem of the impending debt repayment in October. Failure to pay this would result in the first US debt default in history.

There is a vote on this plan on Thursday evening.

Do other countries experience shutdowns?

Short answer, no.

Longer answer, the American political system means the president can be in power without having his/her party controlling Senate or the House. This makes passing legislation, including budgets, much more difficult.

In other presidential systems around the world, the president has the authority to keep governments functioning without a budget. In parliamentary systems, prime ministers normally resign if they no longer control the majority in parliament, leading to more elections.


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