The Government Shutdown: Here's What You Need To Know

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goveshutdownPhoto: REX USA/Rex.

Overnight, the United States government shut down. It's the result of a 10-day standoff in Congress, as the House and the Senate traded legislative blows. At the center of the debate is the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. House Republicans want it dead, while the Democratic Senate has been trying to keep it alive. The critical piece of legislation, however, is a spending bill that would have prevented the government from running out of money at 11:59 p.m. last night. That bill is still in limbo, which means the government has officially shut down for the first time in 17 years. About 800,000 federal employees are being furloughed and a million more are being asked to work without pay. Are you confused? You should be. But, here's what you need to know:

The Specifics
Every year, all government spending needs to be approved as legislation by both houses of Congress before getting a sign-off from the president. The Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate. The two sides could not agree on a spending bill before the October 1 deadline, which marks the beginning of the fiscal year. Since no spending bill was passed, no government money can be spent.

How We Got Here
A continuing resolution, which would have provided funding to the government through December, was proposed. Republicans in Congress used this as a bargaining chip to make alterations to the Affordable Care Act. (This is also where Sen. Ted Cruz's "filibuster" comes in.) The extraordinary part about this crisis is that budgets and resolutions are usually passed by Congress with no strings attached. This is more than just two parties disagreeing; it represents a careful strategy by members of Congress to hold the entire government for ransom in order to undermine a health-care law.

What followed was a series of transactions between the House and the Senate. The Senate rejected the House's version of the bill that gutted the health-care law, refusing to budge. "I want to be absolutely crystal clear," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, "any bill that defunds Obamacare is dead, dead.” Likewise, House Republicans refused to pass any bill that didn't alter the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Over the weekend, the spending bill was volleyed between the two houses, with changes each time.

Around 8:40 p.m. last night, the House voted to pass a third spending bill that delayed the individual mandate for a year. Within an hour, the Senate stripped the health provisions from the bill and sent it back to the House. Knowing that the House would propose a conference with the Senate on the most recent version of the legislation, Sen. Reid preemptively dismissed the proposal and refused to negotiate without a "clean" bill that funded the government and did not involve Obamacare. "We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads," said Reid. By the time the House actually requested the conference, the Senate was already adjourned.

What "Shutdown" Means
A few minutes before midnight last night, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo directing federal agencies to "execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations." This furlough affects more than 800,000 workers, but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't show up to work. Federal employees were told to report to their offices today, at which point their managers will decide who is and isn't essential to daily operations. Air traffic controllers, federal prison guards, government inspectors, and the military will remain on the job. Everyone else is just not getting paid.

Because some funding occurs outside of this congressional appropriations process, the shutdown of services is not entirely clean-cut: National parks are closed, for example, but the U.S. Postal Service will continue to operate.

The Treasury Department and the IRS, however, are sending home approximately 90 percent of their employees. Public schools and veterans shouldn't notice much of a change in the first week or so, but if the shutdown lasts longer than that — the last shutdown in 1995-96 lasted a total of 28 days — benefit checks will be halted and things will grow trickier for federally funded education programs. The CDC, EPA, NASA, and other government agencies will operate on skeleton crews.

And, how will the shutdown affect you? If you're not a federal employee, you probably won't notice anything different today. But, the longer the government is non-operational, the more all of us will start to feel a squeeze.

The Obamacare Part
Ironically, part of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect today. Health insurance exchanges, a key part of the law, are open for all states. Technical glitches have plagued healthcare.gov and similar state-run sites this morning, but they are reportedly operational. (NYTimes)