The Shutdown: It’s Over!…Isn’t It?

In 1978, Kenny Rogers released “The Gambler,” a song that details the sage advice of an avid poker player. The lyrics famously contain the chorus, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Fittingly, the song debuted less than a month after a government shutdown. Now, over 40 years later, President Trump may be wishing he’d added the song to his playlist five weeks ago.

The government shutdown has officially ended after reaching the 35-day mark, becoming the longest in American history. The Trump administration refused to fund the government without at least $5.7 billion being set aside for construction of a wall on the southern border.1 After saying he would “take the mantle” for the shutdown, the president gave a televised address attempting to outline why he felt the wall was essential for border security and why shutting down the government to ensure its funding was necessary.2

During the course of those five weeks, over 800,000 federal workers missed two paychecks, accounting for over $6 billion in delayed wages.3 These workers will eventually be reimbursed, but the numerous businesses who depend on those workers to spend their earnings will not be. Furthermore, an S&P Global Ratings estimate places the total impact on the U.S. economy over the course of the shutdown as at least $6 billion, a full $300 million more than the desired wall funding.4

Worst of all for the Trump administration is that after 35 days of holding out, the shutdown ended without a single dollar allocated for the wall. The funding package passed by Congress and signed by the president is virtually identical to the package President Trump refused to approve, triggering the shutdown.5

However, it may not really be over.

As it stands, the government is funded only until February 15. Congress must pass a new funding package by then to keep the government running throughout the remainder of fiscal year 2019 (which ends on September 30). President Trump has suggested that the three-week period will give his administration and congressional Republicans time to reach a new deal with Democrats, which may include funding for the wall. Democrats have already signaled that will not be the case.6

President Trump is now left with two options. As he has already suggested, he may initiate another shutdown on February 15 if the requested $5.7 billion for wall funding is not in the new budget. Alternatively, he could declare a state of emergency on the southern border and use his powers as commander-in-chief to order the military to begin construction on the wall to the tune of $7 billion.7

President Trump and members of his administration have already promoted this second option, as a way of ending the first shutdown. Promoters suggest that not only is this the president’s right, but that it offers a way of keeping his campaign promises without bringing the government to a stand-still.8 Detractors argue that a wall is an effective solution for border security, and a majority of Americans do not want it.9

For more on public opinion and understanding of the issue, see How Americans see Illegal Immigration, the Border Wall and Political Compromise from the Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the president’s right to use the military for the wall’s construction is not certain and many have objected to the use of $7 billion in disaster relief funds, which may negatively impact ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico, California, and Texas.10

As the next three weeks play out, I know that I’ll be listening to “The Gambler” a least a few times.

Discussion Questions

1) Ask students to conduct a take-a-stand. On side A, “The importance of the wall made a government shutdown necessary,” and on side B, “The wall was not important enough to shut down the government.” Once students have taken their positions, hold a discussion or a brief debate so they can share their perspectives.

2) One of the core principles of the Constitution is the idea of compromise. If the president decides a policy is important, should Congress be expected to incorporate elements of it into their decision-making? Is it reasonable for Congress to reject a presidential policy outright?

3) If no funding for a border wall is allocated by February 15, should the president allow the government to shut down again? Should he declare a state of emergency to build the wall and avoid shutting down the government? Are there other options to consider?

4) Should the president be allowed to declare a state of emergency to accomplish a policy goal that Congress has already rejected? Does the president’s role as commander-in-chief and primary executor of the law give him the right to use the military to enact a security policy? Does the use of the military and the reallocation of disaster relief funding constitute an overreach of executive authority?

Featured Image: Photo by Pedro Pardo, AFP; source: The Mercury News 

[1] Vox:

[2] Washington Post:

[3] Federal News Network:

[4] Fox Business:

[5] The Atlantic:

[6] Vox:

[7] New York Times:

[8] CNN:

[9] Washington Post:

[10] Associated Press:

H.R. 1 – A Bill to Rescue Democracy?

The first bill introduced in the new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is H.R. 1, informally known as the For the People Act. (The bill’s full title is H.R. 1: To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.)

Democrats in Congress say the bill is intended to limit corruption, expand access to the ballot, and make the government more responsive to the people. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called the bill a “power grab” and an attempt to “grow the federal government’s power over Americans’ political speech and elections.”


What Does the For the People Act Do?

From Vox:

“The bill covers three main planks: campaign finance reform, strengthening the government’s ethics laws, and expanding voting rights. Here’s the important part of each section.”

Campaign Finance

  • “Public financing of campaigns, powered by small donations. Under [Representative John Sarbanes’, D-Md.,] vision, the federal government would provide a voluntary 6-1 match for candidates for president and Congress, which means for every dollar a candidate raises from small donations, the federal government would match it six times over.
  • Support for a constitutional amendment to end Citizens United.
  • Passing the DISCLOSE Act, pushed by Rep. David Cicilline and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats from Rhode Island. This would require Super PACs and “dark money” political organizations to make their donors public.
  • Passing the Honest Ads Act, championed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mark Warner (Va.) and introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) in the House, which would require Facebook and Twitter to disclose the source of money for political ads on their platforms and share how much money was spent.
  • Disclosing any political spending by government contractors and slowing the flow of foreign money into the elections by targeting shell companies.
  • Restructuring the Federal Election Commission to have five commissioners instead of the current four.”


  • “Requiring the president and vice president to disclose 10 years of his or her tax returns. Candidates for president and vice president must also do the same.
  • Stopping members of Congress from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment or discrimination cases.
  • Giving the Office of Government Ethics the power to do more oversight and enforcement and put in stricter lobbying registration requirements. These include more oversight into foreign agents by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
  • Creating a new ethical code for the U.S. Supreme Court, ensuring all branches of government are impacted by the new law.”

Voting Rights

  • “Creating new national automatic voter registration that asks voters to opt out, rather than opt in, ensuring more people will be signed up to vote. Early voting, same-day voter registration, and online voter registration would also be promoted.
  • Making Election Day a holiday for federal employees and encouraging private sector businesses to do the same, requiring poll workers to provide a week’s notice if poll sites are changed, and making colleges and universities a voter registration agency (in addition to the DMV, etc.), among other updates.
  • Ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections and prohibiting voter roll purging. The bill would stop the use of non-forwardable mail being used as a way to remove voters from rolls.
  • Beefing up elections security, including requiring the director of national intelligence to do regular checks on foreign threats.
  • Recruiting and training more poll workers ahead of the 2020 election to cut down on long lines at the polls.”

Senate Majority Leader McConnell has called the bill “a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.” He has already said that the bill will not come up for a vote in the Senate, even if it passes in the House (which it probably will). Still, Democrats have said that they will continue to push these ideas by breaking the bill into smaller pieces to pass a few ideas at a time.


Questions to Discuss

  1. What have you heard about issues such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, voter turnout, and government ethics in recent months and years?
  2. Which ideas among those included in the bill do you think are likely to be controversial? Why?
  3. Are there any ideas that you support? Any that you oppose? What is your reasoning?
  4. Why do you think this is a major area of focus for Democrats?


Optional Extension Activities

  1. Conduct a short debate after having students read the three opinion articles below.
  2. Place students in groups of 2-3 and assign each group one of the reforms listed above. Have them research the reform and write a one-page memo that gives background about the issue and a short statement in support of and in opposition to the reform. Students can use the memos to teach each other about their reforms; the memos can also be compiled into a packet and circulated online to inform other students and community members about the reforms in the bill.


Additional Resources


Featured Image: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Representative John Sarbanes, D-Md., the bill’s author, addresses the media.)



10 Things to Know About the Government Shutdown

Why did the American government shut down? As summarized by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget: “Every year, Congress must pass and the president must sign budget legislation for the next fiscal year (FY), consisting of 12 appropriations bills, one for each appropriations subcommittee. When the federal government’s fiscal year began October 1, Congress had enacted five of the 12 appropriations bills for FY 2019. Lawmakers have not yet passed full-year appropriations for the departments and agencies covered by the other seven appropriations bills.” The law associated with government shutdowns is the Antideficiency Act, which was enacted in 1870 and extensively amended in 1950 and 1982. The law prevents the use of funds without appropriation, except when the government activity involves “the safety of human life or protection of property” (Source). According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there have been 19 government shutdowns in the U.S. since 1977. Previous shutdowns have lasted anywhere from one to 21 days. The current shutdown is 24 days long (and counting), having started on December 21, 2018 (the deadline stated in the continuing resolution), making it the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Source: New York Times


Why is this considered a partial American government shutdown? Only about 25 percent of the federal government remains unfunded. During a shutdown, any agency or department that has not had their funding appropriated by the deadline will run out of funding and must stop all non-essential activity.Source: CRS with data from the Legislative Information System of the U.S. Congress.


Which appropriations bills are being impacted by the 2019 U.S. government shutdown? Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment, State-Foreign Operations, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development. The operations in these sections of the government were being funded until December 21, 2018, through a continuing resolution (CR). A CR is a measure that Congress often passes to avoid a shutdown by extending the current level of funding, giving lawmakers more time to complete appropriations for the new fiscal year.


What’s all the fighting about? There is disagreement in the government about one thing in particular: funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. President Donald Trump is pushing for $5.7 billion in funding for the wall and is being met with extreme resistance in Congress (particularly in the Democrat-held House of Representatives). Democrats have conceded to supporting $1.6 billion for border security (obviously lower than President Trump’s request) and would allocate those funds for “general” border security rather than for a wall.


Have any solutions been introduced? Some attempts have been made in Congress, but no bill has succeeded thus far. The House passed a bill (H.R. 264) that included a 1.9 percent civilian pay raise for federal employees, but no funding for the border wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not address the bill on the floor of the Senate and blocked it from a vote (Source).Senate Majority Leader McConnell said,  “The Senate will not waste its time considering a Democratic bill which cannot pass this chamber and which the president will not sign.” He went on to say that the legislation presented by the House was not brought up for a vote in the Senate because, “It isn’t comprehensive. It ignores the needs of border security. It is exactly the kind of proposal you would expect if the incoming House Democrats were choosing to stage a political sideshow rather than doing the hard work of helping to govern the country; in other words, it is a total nonstarter.”President Trump has said that he doesn’t see the shutdown lasting that long, but he is prepared to let it “go on for months or even a year or longer” (Source). As for the Senate, it technically has the power to override a presidential veto, allowing for the government to reopen if two-thirds of each chamber were to pass the bill.


What about federal employees—are they working? Are they being paid? There are about 380,000 federal workers currently furloughed and an additional 420,000 who are considered “essential.” Furloughed employees are required to stay home from work without pay (but will receive back pay once the government re-opens). Essential employees are required to report to work as usual, but they will not be paid (until they receive back pay when the U.S. shutdown ends). There is no guarantee that furloughed employees will receive back pay (Congress must pass a bill that does this), but it has been the practice in previous shutdowns. Luckily for impacted federal workers, Congress passed the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019 (S. 24) on January 11. The bill will secure back pay for workers impacted by this American government shutdown—it addresses both pay that has already been missed and any future missed pay that comes as a result of the shutdown.


Is this such a bad thing? Doesn’t it save taxpayers money when a government shutdown in the U.S. occurs? It is understandable to think that, but it actually costs us money when the government shuts down. Using data from past shutdowns, CRS compiled a report on the potential and likely costs of a government shutdown. The costs associated with the U.S. shutdown were broken down by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) into five broad categories:

  • Effects on the economy
  • Federal employee furloughs
  • Impacts on programs and services
  • Other budgetary costs
  • Impacts on the federal workforce

OMB has said that paying back pay to furloughed employees is historically the largest direct cost of an American government shutdown, as taxpayers will pay furloughed employees for work not performed. OMB estimated that costs of back pay to furloughed employees in the FY 2014 shutdown came to about $2 billion, plus an additional $500 million in benefits.

The CRS report also outlined some of the effects of the two government shutdowns in the U.S. in FY 1996:

    • The closure of more than 368 parks, museums, and monuments. The closure of these sites meant a loss of seven million visitors who would have been providing tourism revenue for the site itself and for the local community around the site. (In the current 2019 U.S. government shutdown, approximately one-third of national park sites are closed; at others, few if any staff are on hand.)
    • Visas, passports, and travel. Tens of thousands of visa and passport applications went unprocessed, and various U.S. tourism sectors, such as aviation, reportedly incurred millions of dollars in losses. (In the current shutdown, the State Department is continuing to offer passport services.)


What is the impact of this American government shutdown? Another fact about the government shutdown is that it has had a wide-ranging impact across the government and in various aspects of American life.

Government-sponsored social programs have varying levels of funding left. The Department of Agriculture, for example, announced on January 8 that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will be extended into February and school lunch programs will be given an additional two months of funding to take coverage into March.

Without protection in national parks, trash and debris are piling up and some people are using the lack of supervision to break rules and misuse park resources. For example, people have been found illegally driving off-road in Joshua Tree National Park; some even cut down protected Joshua trees in order to create roads into the forest.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that around 1,150 housing contracts are on the verge of default because the shutdown is preventing people from receiving their federal housing assistance. The agency has written to landlords requesting that they use surplus funds to avoid eviction of tenants as long as they can (or until the shutdown ends). The Federal Housing Administration released a statement requesting that lenders be understanding of federal workers who are going without pay and sent a letter to lenders about the U.S. shutdown.

According to economists at the financial services company S&P Global, a government shutdown is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $1.2 billion a week.


Can I take a flight? Is it safe? While the airports are understaffed, you can still take a flight. According to the Wall Street Journal, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers are part of the 420,000 essential employees across government agencies who are required to work without pay during the shutdown. On January 11, TSA employees and air traffic controllers missed their first paycheck.

For TSA employees, there has been an increase in unplanned call-outs for things like illness and weather over the last week or so. For the weeks prior to the first missed paycheck, TSA had an absentee rate of about 5 percent; that rate is up to 7.6 percent as of January 14.

Air traffic controllers have gone a step further: on Friday, they filed a lawsuit in federal court. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association alleges that the government “unlawfully deprived” thousands of members of pay “without due process” and are suing the Trump administration.

While airports and the TSA are assuring passengers that staffing shortages have not decreased airport security and will not affect travel, certain groups in the aviation industry do not believe this will last for long. A group of 34 trade groups, associations, and unions that represent various aviation industry employees (like pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics) got together and wrote a letter to President Trump, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell. The letter laid out in detail the negative impacts that the shutdown is having on the industry and its employees. “This partial shutdown has already inflicted real damage to our nation’s aviation system and the impacts will only worsen over time,” they wrote. “We urge you to act quickly to resolve these issues.”


Does our military still protect us if the government is shut down? The military is almost completely unaffected by government shutdowns in the US, as the Department of Defense’s budget was passed separately in September. However, because the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, that branch has been impacted by furloughs and lack of pay.


Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think Congress should fund a border wall? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with President Trump’s decision to keep the government shut down until a border wall is written into the budget? Why or why not?
  • How, if at all, do you think this government shutdown might impact the way the world views the United States?
  • How, if at all, might bias impact the way that various news outlets discuss the ongoing shutdown?
  • How might the shutdown impact the lives of citizens if it continues for many months? At what point, if any, is the cost to citizens too great to justify the shutdown?


More information from CRS can be found here:


Featured image: ABC News


The New Congress and the Government Shutdown

Source: USA TODAY research

On January 3, the 116th Congress was sworn in as directed by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The incoming Congress will be the most diverse in history. Here are some facts about the makeup of the new Congress:

  • In the House of Representatives, Democrats will now be in the majority with 235 members. Republicans will have 199 members.
  • There are 100 new members of the House, comprising 23 percent of the chamber.
  • In the Senate, Republicans increased their majority by one. There are now 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents (who caucus with Democrats). Ten of these senators are new to the chamber.
  • The 116th Congress will include 106 female members of the House (24 percent of the chamber) and 25 women in the Senate (25 percent of the chamber). Both are the highest levels of female representation in history.
  • Among the House freshman class are the first Native American congresswomen and the first Muslim congresswomen.
  • For the first time, more than ten percent of Congress is African-American.

There is one vacancy in the House, as the election in North Carolina’s Ninth District is unresolved. The Republican nominee, Mark Harris, received 905 more counted votes than his opponent, but there is evidence of illegal election activities performed on his behalf. The North Carolina Board of Elections has dissolved without certifying a winner in the race; thus, nobody will be seated from this district for the foreseeable future. There may be a new election, but there will be 434 members of the House for the time being.


What Will be the Impact of Democrats Taking Over the House?

Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is the new speaker of the House. The speaker runs the House, controls the agenda, and influences the shape and content of legislation. It is very difficult for a proposal to receive a floor vote without the support of the speaker; at the same time, if the speaker supports a particular piece of legislation, she can easily make sure there is a floor vote.

Democrats will also control House committees, as they will hold committee chairmanships and more seats on each committee than Republicans. Chairpersons control committee agendas and determine which bills go to the entire chamber. With more votes, Democrats will be able to get more bills and amendments passed through committees.

Of course, Republicans still control both the Senate and the White House, and enacting legislation in a divided government is difficult. Each party has its own priorities and it is hard to find compromise in an era of intense partisanship. This will be especially true for the present government shutdown.


What Is a Government Shutdown?

Every year, the new Congress must pass, and the president must sign, the budget for the federal government. The budget consists of 12 appropriations bills that must be passed alone or together in order to fund the government. The fiscal year for the federal government runs from October 1 through September 30; theoretically, the budget should be passed before October 1, but this almost never happens.

If appropriations bills are not passed by October 1, Congress usually sends a continuing resolution (CR) to the president to fund the government at previous levels until a certain date.


Why Is There Currently a Government Shutdown?

The last CR passed by Congress expired on December 21. President Donald Trump has refused to sign any additional CRs or appropriations bills unless they contain $5 billion to construct a wall on the southern border. As Democrats take over the House, they are expected to pass appropriations bills and CRs and send them to the Senate, but the Senate is unlikely to bring them to a vote unless there is an agreement with President Trump. Without funding, federal departments and agencies that get their funding through the budget process do not fully function.

NOTE: Appropriations bills for the Departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Energy have been passed and signed, so those departments are not affected by the shutdown. Departments affected by the shutdown include Homeland Security, Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Interior, State, and Transportation. Technically, this is a “partial” government shutdown.


What Does a Government Shutdown Impact?

Activities and services that have been deemed essential will continue, but those who work in those jobs are not paid as they continue to work (traditionally, workers receive back pay when the dispute ends). Approximately 800,000 federal employees will neither report to work nor draw a paycheck (similarly, Congress can pass legislation to pay furloughed workers after the shutdown ends). The longer the shutdown goes, some of these public servants will have trouble paying bills, including mortgages.

Activities that will cease during the shutdown include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency will stop site inspections, including those of hazardous waste, drinking water, and chemical facilities.
  • The Social Security Administration will continue to issue checks, but benefit verification and the issuing of new cards will stop.
  • National parks will either be open on a limited basis or closed. Smithsonian museums will close.
  • On many Native American reservations, police are not being paid, roads are not being plowed, and food pantries are closing.
  • Food stamps are still being funded through emergency appropriations, but those will not cover all of February’s obligations.


How Will the Shutdown End?

Both chambers of Congress need to pass, and the president must sign, a CR or the rest of the remaining appropriations bills (or a combination of both). This process takes some time, so even if an agreement is negotiated it will take another couple of days to end the shutdown.

In an address to the nation tonight, President Trump will make his case for funding the border wall before ending the government shutdown. Democrats, meanwhile, have made their own plans to address the shutdown during their first days in power.


Who is Right?

President Trump is arguing that $5 billion in border security, whether it funds a wall or something like a wall, is essential for protecting the country and ending the flow of illegal immigration into the United States. He insists that he was elected on the promise of building a wall on the southern border, and it is time for Congress to act.

Democrats in Congress argue that $5 billion is too much to spend, that the public does not support building a wall, and that a wall is a stale attempt at security at a time when newer technologies are cheaper and more effective.


Student Activity:

Here is a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. And here is the view of Representative Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

  • Have students read the statements and find the different points being made. Which arguments are the strongest? Which arguments are the weakest? Why?
  • Have students fact-check the arguments.
  • Have students explain which side they agree with more.
  • Have students explain if they believe the government should be shut down over the issue of building the wall.
  • If students agree, ask them why this issue (the border wall) is so important that it merits a government shutdown. If students disagree, ask them if there are issues that do merit a government shutdown.
  • Here is a compromise suggested by former Representative Steve Israel, D-N.Y. Have students explain the main points of this solution, and whether or not they would support this solution. Why or why not?


Featured image: