Why Do Federal Government Shutdowns Occur?

Budget Process By Kevin R. Kosar January 16, 2024

Article I, section 9, clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution declares, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

And when Congress enacts bills to appropriate money for spending, those bills have a limited duration, usually one year. Should Congress fail to enact another spending bill (say, for agricultural programs) before the previous one expires, then a spending gap occurs. The agencies funded by that appropriations legislation will run out of money and are not supposed to operate —and incur new operational costs— until Congress appropriates new funding.

With 12 appropriation bills needing to be enacted to fund the whole of government, government shutdowns come in degrees. If 11 of 12 spending bills become law, then the shutdown will be small and partial. Should none of the spending bills be passed, the shutdown should be total.

In truth, however, the United States does not have total government shutdowns. Many federal workers are furloughed and do not come to work. But others, such as members of the military and border control agents, are exempt and continue their duties.

This Congressional Research Service report explains government shutdowns and their nuances.


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