Journalism in the Public Interest

Cheat Sheet: Understanding the Budget Standoff and Government Shutdown


The US Capitol dome seen behind a temporary fence on April 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Paul J. Richards/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

Congress has two days to reach a budget deal to fund the government for the rest of the year or else come Saturday, the federal government will go into a partial shutdown.

But what’s the budget standoff all about and what would a shutdown really entail? Here’s our attempt to explain the basics:

Basics behind the budget standoff's political calculations

The GOP and the Obama administration are currently locked in a standoff over a difference of $7 billion to $30 billion—a miniscule amount of the total $3.5 trillion budget. (OMB Watch, an open government group, has a thorough account of the budget battles that led up to this point.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday morning that the budget disagreement isn’t just about the numbers. He said Republicans are holding up an agreement based on ideological disagreements over the powers of the EPA and funding for Planned Parenthood.

House Speaker John Boehner countered that, saying, “There’s far more than one provision that’s holding up an agreement.” Boehner defended the many riders—or policy restrictions—included in the GOP’s budget. OMB Watch has listed them [PDF].

Also contributing to some of the tension is the the GOP's 2012 budget proposal, which was put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan this week. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has a simple summary of the proposal, which lowers corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, extends the Bush tax cuts permanently, calls for repeal of both the health care law and Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and freezes discretionary spending at 2008 levels.

Political calculations

The negotiations have been a bit complicated for a few reasons. The first is that it’s not always clear what the two sides are using as the baseline for cuts—whether it’s current operating levels or Obama’s proposed budget for 2011 (which never passed). Both parties have at times used the 2011 budget proposal as a baseline, making the cuts sound more impressive. 

Another reason it’s been hard to nail down numbers is that Republicans haven’t always been on the same page.  The Tea Party-supported GOP freshmen, who aren’t at the negotiating table, have stuck to a hard line on the budget. House Speaker John Boehner, who is at the negotiating table, says there’s “no daylight between the tea party and me.”

But it’s clear that in the run-up to the November elections, the GOP pledged $100 billion in cuts, and when the House in February proposed a list of somewhat scaled back spending cuts closer to the Obama administration’s current offer, House leaders got grief from some GOP freshmen and pledged the next day to cut a full $100 billion. (That’s using President Obama’s never-enacted 2011 budget as a baseline, so it translates to about $61 billion in cuts from current levels.)

Boehner, moreover, pledged not to stop at $100 billion, according to Time magazine: "We're not going to stop there,” he said at CPAC. “Once we cut the discretionary accounts, then we'll get into the mandatory spending. And then you'll see more cuts.”

But this week, he reportedly told President Obama that he could probably agree to about $40 billion in cuts (using current levels at the baseline). That’s still $7 billion more than the $33 billion that the Obama administration has offered to cut. Democrats have complained that the GOP keeps shifting its goalposts for compromise.

How a shutdown works

At agencies whose budgets are subject to Congressional appropriations, workers are put in two groups: essential or non-essential.

Essential workers keep working—though they won’t get paid until funding is back again. Non-essential workers will be furloughed, so they won’t go to work until the funding issues are resolved, and they won’t get paid for days missed unless Congress specifically says so.

Which federal workers will be affected?

The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday night posted some guidance on what would happen in the event of a shutdown. Workers find out from their agencies whether they’ll be furloughed until today or, at the latest, Friday.

The Washington Post has a piece on how frustrating this has been for some workers. And the New York Times has noted that the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, has sued the Office of Management and Budget to get more information on agencies’ contingency plans.

The president and members of Congress, who aren’t subject to furloughs, will still get paid—though a bill to reverse that has passed the Senate but not the House.

Lessons from the last shutdown

At this point, most of the predictions about what will happen in a shutdown are based on what happened in previous shutdowns. And most of the information cited on this seems to have been taken from a Congressional Research Service report released in February [PDF].

The report notes that from 1995 to 1996, two shutdowns occurred—one that lasted five days and furloughed 800,000 workers; another that lasted 21 days and furloughed 284,000 workers. That’s a lot of variation, and keep in mind that entirely new agencies have been formed in the 15 years since the last shutdown.

Which government services would be affected?

The New York Times has a handy list laying out how various government services might be affected. Some things that would continue mostly unaffected are military operations, the Federal Reserve, the postal service, and Medicare and Social Security payments. An accompanying story also outlines some potential scenarios in more detail:

The National Zoo would close, but the lions and tigers would get fed; Yellowstone and other national parks would shut down. The Internal Revenue Service could stop issuing refund checks. Customs and Border Patrol agents training officials in Afghanistan might have to come home. And thousands of government-issued BlackBerrys would go silent.

… In any shutdown, the government does not completely cease functioning, of course. Activities that are essential to national security, like military operations, can continue. Air traffic control and other public safety functions are exempt from shutdowns. Federal prisons still operate; law enforcement and criminal investigations can continue.

The Times also has a piece on how state governments may be affected by a federal shutdown. The answer: not too much if it’s a short shutdown, but a long one could present real problems.

The Ryan proposal is for FY 2012, not FY 2011.  It’s confusing and misleading to include it in the middle of the story about the shutdown.

Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks for the feedback. Another reader also wrote in to say it was confusing. I read it over again and agree with both of you, so I’ve updated some of the language for clarity.


Curtis Walker

April 7, 2011, 3:59 p.m.

This budget chart that Ryan DID NOT USE tells you so much about the quality of the entire presentation.

BUSTED: Politician Says “The Interest On The Deficit is Driving Us off A Cliff (in this example Republican Paul Ryan and his “Path To Prosperity”)”
This blew me away…and think it will blow your mind, too! I will start with the Bottom Line:
When politicians start talking about the need to “sacrifice” for “the children” and imminent catastrophe if we don’t do something “right now” then you probably should be afraid, and start asking what is happening “right now” that requires this urgent action, because at least on the debt, there certainly aren’t any discernable economic ramifications of it anywhere. For details and eye opening charts go to link below.


Realistically, can we expect this group of people, who live in the cyberworld of “WarGames are good” and ““Military Spending around the World is Justified”,  to give a good goddamn about the citizens of the US? I’m so saddened by the misinformation and lack of math skills, and the absence of a moral compass, by the conservative element in this Government. Look, we learned a lesson 40 years ago in VietNam that war will kill our children, give us a Huge Annuity of Medical and Retirement Spending for Active Duty Veterans, drive us rapidly toward Bankruptcy by “out of control” Military Spending, money spent that can never generate any true benefit! What can we do? We have boots on the ground in how many countries? Can we really cut Medicare, Soc. Sec, Education, bespoil air, water, continue to let Energy companies blow up mountains, spill billions of gallons of oil in Alaska and the Gulf. Can we let Giant Health Care Mega Companies rob us of our health care dollars? How about Wall Street Financiers, is it ok if they rob us? Why are the Members of Congress not focusing on these Problems?  Helpppppppp!

Richard McDonough

April 7, 2011, 11:26 p.m.

A ridiculous macho game by all to the detriment of the working class.
So what else is new?

Sean I totally agree with you. These people might could govern if they could step away from their ideologies and trying to make inroads to their fat cat careers. Meanwhile Americans have been put into divide and conquer status which the parties use for their own narcissistic means. They can’t work for us, we’re not lobbyist we’ve become mere voters.

WHAT SERVICES WILL BE AFFECTED?? No one has bothered to mention that all the men and women in the military will not get paid during the shutdown.  THEY will FIGHT and They will DIE needlessly.  And while the Congress and President fight over a budget, they will serve with no pay.  My son is a Marine serving in one of the countries we have our boots in, he and others are facing death everyday, while politicians repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam War.  SEND our youth to die, or come back home crippled in mind and body, AND< YES we are freezing all military pay till we finish f-ing around with the budget.

Almost half of all congressmen are millionaires.  The top ten have a net worth north of a billion dollars.  If congress were subject to furloughs would it really matter to them?  Call me sceptical, but I find it difficult to believe these people can be in touch with the average person.  What they should shut down is their ability to invest in the industries that so lavishly lobby congress.  Congress needs a permanent furlough from greed and self serving interests.

The top ten have a “combined” net worth north of a billion dollars.
My apologies.


April 9, 2011, 9:28 a.m.

“The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has a simple summary [5] of the proposal, which lowers corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, extends the Bush tax cuts permanently, calls for repeal of both the health care law and Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and freezes discretionary spending at 2008 levels.”

You forgot “throws the elderly and poor into the streets and starves children to death.”

What really chaps my hide is that many of the our current legislators got where they are today w/ some sort of government support during their young lives (e.g., scott brown’s family (mother) was on welfare, ryan paul used his father’s SS to help get him thru college, etc.) and yet these folks do not think that others should have the same safety nets available.

If the debt ceiling is not raised, then the first segment of government to shut down is the entire Congress, their staffs, travel budgets, payroll and fringe benefits untill such time that they show they are working for the people and not their party.  Eric “The Younger” Cantor, when he isn’t having a hissy fit,  has cuddled up to the Finance Industry and now receives at least $2million from hedge funds, investment advisors and real estate companies according to the Washington Post.  No wonder Cantor’s mindless mantra is “no new taxes”.  Hedge funds are only taxed at a rate of 15% thanks to special tax provisions added with the help of peole like “Young Cantor” and his lobbyist friends.

seo experts academy review

Oct. 13, 2011, 10:13 p.m.

Talking about budget and anything about finances in the government is sometimes mind-boggling. This is really scary, especially when it is not carefully deliberated.

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