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The shutdown for dummies

You’re no dummy. You know the government has shut down. You know the National Zoo’s panda cam isn’t working; you just don’t know why. So here’s a quick explanation of why the government shut down, what specifically is happening, and how it will end.

The government is shut down because Congress didn’t approve funding on time. Most federal spending has to be approved by Congress, which happens one of two ways – either on a yearly basis by passing an appropriations bill, or for a specific period of time that’s less than a year, which is called a continuing resolution. Congress has been relying on continuing resolutions as it has become increasing gridlocked, and the last continuing resolution expired on September 30th.

Congress is trying to pass a new continuing resolution, but the House of Representatives and Senate can’t agree on what it should look like. The House, which is controlled by Republicans, wants to stop funding the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Unsurprisingly, the Senate doesn’t want to stop President Obama’s major legislative achievement, and has rejected this request. Until one side gives in, the government will stay shutdown.

This is the eighteenth government shutdown since the federal government changed to its current budgeting process. Shutdowns used to be a lot more common than they are today. During Ronald Reagan’s eight years as President, there were seven government shutdowns; none occurred under President Bush. Shutdowns have become less common because the last one, which happened in 1995, was so politically damaging for Republicans that opposition parties have learned not to let a shutdown happen.

Current polling shows that most Americans dislike Obamacare, but would rather fund it than see the government shutdown. Republicans are sticking to their position despite the polls because voters in areas that elect Republicans, particularly the party activists who are influential in primary elections that select candidates, are outliers from this national trend and support a shutdown.

Despite its name, a government shutdown doesn’t mean that every government function stops. Government services are categorized as either “essential” and “nonessential,” and only nonessential services are suspended during a shutdown. Essential services, which are not interrupted, include the military, law enforcement, emergency and disaster assistance, and the power grid. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the postal service are funded outside of the appropriations process, and will continue operating. Ironically, Obamacare is largely funded through outside spending and therefore won’t be heavily affected by the shutdown.

Everything other government service is nonessential, which means that the workers who perform it are temporarily unemployed and the service is not provided. Some of these services are frivolous, albeit enjoyable, government programs such as the national parks and monuments. However, many non-essential functions are very important: experimental drug programs; collecting economic data that helps businesses make decisions; running the Amber Alert system that helps find kidnapped children; tracking food-borne illnesses; and approving business permits.

The government shutdown will end when either Democrats agree to defund Obamacare or Republicans agree to fund it. Political experts think Republicans are much more likely to make concessions than President Obama and the Democrats. The continuing resolution will probably include full funding for Obamacare. There will be token concessions to Republicans, likely in the form of delaying the implementation of minor parts of Obamacare.

When that happens, the shutdown will be over and people can go back to watching cute pandas play in a zoo.