What does it take to end a government shutdown?

A sign informs visitors driving into Big Bend National Park of the partial government shutdown in 2019.

A sign informs visitors driving into Big Bend National Park of the partial government shutdown in 2019. Gary Kemp Photography/Getty Images

The end of past budget impasses have often played out as calculations of policy goals versus the political pain needed to achieve them, but when the goal is unclear how do you know who wins? 

Despite the myriad reasons underlying past federal government shutdowns, the objective remains fairly simple: to achieve a specific policy, one political majority in Congress threatens to withhold budget appropriations while an opposing political faction, often the White House, threatens to prevent that policy from becoming law.

But no matter the policy, executing it by way of budget impasse is anything but easy. 

“Some of this reminds me of the great, old Road Runner cartoons,” Don Kettl, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and former dean of its School of Public Policy, told Government Executive. “There’s always Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner and it always ended the same way for the coyote. The best laid plans end up in failure every time, and that’s so much of what tends to happen with these shutdowns.

“The people that are shutting down the government are always hoping they are going to find some way to get super-leverage or to advance big policy ideas and it just never happens. And the people who are enthusiastic at the beginning about promoting and triggering the shutdown always end up disappointed with what they get, and they tend to be punished politically too at the same time.”

With less than a week until appropriations lapse, Congress is again flirting with the financial cliff of a shutdown that has played out countless times before.  

Past shutdowns generally center on two things: how much money the federal government is spending and what it spends it on. The latter often provides lawmakers with a waypoint to guide to or push against. 

In 1995 and 1996, it revolved balancing the federal budget and which programs to cut. In 2013, the shutdown was over funding and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, while 2018-2019’s 35-day partial shutdown related to funding for then-President Trump’s proposed border wall.

With the issue in play, a government shutdown often becomes a calculation of whether the juice is worth the squeeze that any realizable policy gains will outweigh the pain of lost economic activity, political capital and wages for federal employees and contractors. 

“Part of the goal of the administration will be to avoid that harm from falling on the backs of the public,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told Government Executive. “They are going to do everything they can to ensure that the work of the government continues. When the harms become apparent, then that’s when the pressure will be on the politicians to come to a deal.”

Those harms can come with real costs. The 2018-2019 partial government shutdown shuttered about 25 percent of the federal government, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the nation collectively lost $11 billion in gross domestic product. There’s also the economic hardship on federal employees that worked without a paycheck until Congress approved later back pay, while federal contractors received no compensation for the impasse. 

As that shutdown teetered towards its conclusion, excepted employees at the Transportation Security Administration were alleged to have held “sickouts,” increasing the level of absence within the agency and impacting operations, potentially driving Congress and the White House to the negotiating table. 

Kettl said that pain could be magnified this time, not only because the shutdown would impact the entire federal government, but because it’s not entirely clear what the policy goal is that Capitol Hill should be negotiating towards.

“This is an even bigger mess than it’s tended to be in the past,” he said. “The problem is, in some ways, not so much about reaching an agreement because both sides reached an agreement on the overall shape of a budget deal back in the spring [with the debt ceiling negotiations] and there appeared to be some kind of consensus on that. This one is unique because of the nature of the fractures within the Republican Party and that makes it that much more difficult because it’s hard to know who it is that you want to bargain with.”

The House and Senate will return on Tuesday to continue efforts to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government beyond Oct. 1, but each chamber’s competing versions of the CR, the lack of GOP consensus in the House and a short timetable make funding the government a tall order presently.

“I do think this is set up to be worse than anything that I’ve seen in my memory,” said Stier. “In part, it’s that you’re not talking about a partial shutdown, you are talking about something that is the full federal government, including the military. I do think you also have, at the same time, the push to bring federal employees back into buildings. I think that you risk that confluence of exacerbating the issue of retention and retirements.” 

As for what it may take to end a potential shutdown this fall, Kettl said it will likely be a policy trigger that can finally bring together a fractured House GOP, whatever trigger that may be.  

“It tends to be a combination of the way the political theatre plays itself out and it tends to be a big problem on the fundamentals of the policy battles and each side calculating how much funding they’ve got to be able to get out of this,” he said. “When they can’t squeeze the rocks any further to get any more blood out of them, then at that point, from a policy point of view, things finally end.