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Why is a government shutdown the political tool of choice these days?

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Updated January 10, 2019 05:00 AM EST

Editor's note: This article was first published Dec. 20, 2018. We're bringing it back today, as the partial government shutdown continues.

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — For politicians on Capitol Hill, government shutdowns are a political tactic. For the millions of federal employees and the citizens they serve, shutdowns can be detrimental.

It's the job of Congress to create a budget that determines how the federal government spends its money, so it is fair to ask: Why are shutdown threats becoming more common? Why do they even happen in the first place?

The congressional "power of purse" is constitutionally guaranteed, so there's no other way to fund the federal government. If Congress can't come to an agreement on spending, the government shuts down. Many segments of society are affected by shutdowns, but it's the estimated 2 million federal employees who feel the pinch the most.

Angelo Haskins
Angelo Haskins, a legal technician for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, applied for unemployment a few days into the government shutdown. (Circa/Ryan Eskalis)

"All federal employees who are not deemed essential are essentially furloughed, their paychecks are stopped," explained Dr. Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Those furloughed employees are not required to work for the duration of the shutdown. In fact, they are barred from doing so—even if they wanted to.

"If they are employees who are deemed essential, they are expected to show up for work, and they are essentially given IOUs," said Brown.

These individuals include those who work in crucial areas, like national security and law enforcement.

That's how shutdowns work, but why they happen is a bit more complicated.

Turn back time

There was a time before social media, the internet and cable news, when members of Congress of all political beliefs accepted the fact that they would not always get what they want in the federal budget and came to an agreement to ensure the government stayed open. No one was totally happy with the result, but it more or less kept things running. So, what changed?

To answer that question, we have to wind the clock back to the mid-1990s.

It's 1994.

"Forrest Gump" is raking in cash at the box office, Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" is topping the Billboard chart, and the "Republican Revolution" midterm election just made a bombastic, salt-and-pepper-haired, former history professor named Newt Gingrich speaker of House.

Newt Gingrich
House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich, of Ga., gestures during a news conference on Monday, Nov. 14, 1994, on Capitol Hill in Washington, to discuss the House transition to the Republicans. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Gingrich was something of a trailblazer in modern politics. His take-no-prisoners conservatism and outlandish (for the '90s) soundbites on cable news helped usher in a new era for Washington politics. When Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1995, Gingrich and company took aim at the Clinton White House. A series of fights over spending on Medicare, education policy, and other issues important to the Clinton administration resulted, and two shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 followed. Shutdowns had occurred before, but the bitter divide behind the '90s shutdowns were distinct.

More followed. In 2011, a government shutdown led to budget sequestration, which put hard caps on spending, creating problems for the government in the following years. The fight over Obamacare in 2013 led to a 16-day government shutdown that furloughed 800,000 federal employees and forced 1.3 million others to work without knowing when they'd be paid. Disputes over immigration led to a shutdown in January 2018.

"You just have different representatives, with a different set of priorities, who have made promises to a different group of constituents," said Brown, adding that the budget fight has now essentially devolved into a sort of arms race where both sides wait to see who caves first.

Not all shutdowns are the same

Government shutdowns can vary in intensity. Some, like the one in 2013, see most of the federal government closed for business. Others are funding gaps in certain parts of government that have not been appropriated funds by the Congress.

"Given how kind of bitter our politics have been, and how few people want to compromise, it should be unsurprisng that Congress is unable to do its most kind of basic task."
Dr. Lara Brown, George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management

The reasoning can differ as well. Some are centered on a single issue, like immigration in January 2018. Others are a battle of political philosophy, like those seen in the Gingrich era where Republicans wanted to rein in federal spending and balance the budget.

What they all share in common is they have real-world effects. In addition to impacting the budgets of the average federal worker, shutdowns can also cost the government serious money. The shutdowns in the mid-'90s were estimated to have cost $1.4 billion, according to the Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget.

Can they be stopped?

To avoid shutdowns, Congress can pass continuing resolutions to keep the government funded. These bills basically keep things going as they were before, while allowing Congress more time to debate future appropriations.

"The bar for a CR is pretty low. You’re not agreeing to anything new politically; it’s a no-brainer," said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in an interview with Fox News.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., pose for photographers after speaking on Capitol Hill in response President Donald Trump's address, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A more permanent solution can often be more difficult. Brown noted the partisan nature of politics signals Congress not to give in to compromise.

"The public, even though they say they want compromise, what they really want is the other side to give up everything," said Brown.

"Given how kind of bitter our politics have been, and how few people want to compromise, it should be unsurprisng that Congress is unable to do its most kind of basic task."

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