Congress shuts down U.S. government

The U.S. government has been closed for almost a week after Congressional action Tuesday forced a shutdown for the first time in 17 years. The shutdown was the result of disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which went into effect Oct. 1.

Congress needed to pass a budget for the new fiscal year, also beginning Oct. 1, but the House of Representatives wouldn’t support a proposal unless the Senate agreed to delay healthcare for another year.

“Asking for a year delay is effectively trying to kill it,” Wayne Steger, a political science professor, said. Democrats refused to budge on healthcare, and after an evening of back-and-forth, the government closed. 

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Federal employees out of work

Because of the shutdown, 800,000 federal workers have been forced to stay home. These people are considered “non- essential” employees, meaning their duties aren’t pertinent to public security or protection. “Essential” employees are still working, according to DePaul political science professor Zachary Cook, but many of them aren’t being paid and will receive a paycheck retroactively when the government reopens.

The exodus of employees also has a dramatic effect on federal agencies themselves. According to the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” the Dept. of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and national parks and museums are some of the many facilities unable to function normally.

They are either completely closed or without many of their employees until further notice. Cook and Steger both noted that the larger costs of the shutdown aren’t apparent yet, but will start to reveal themselves if Congress doesn’t come to an agreement in due time.

“There will be an increasing amount of frustration and economic pain,” Cook said. To ease some of that potential pain, the House approved a bill Saturday to guarantee pay for employees who are either furloughed or working without pay. The New York Times reported that the vote was unanimous.

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The military

Military officials currently in service are considered essential and have not been drastically affected by the shutdown. In fact, President Obama passed a bill before the government closed to ensure that they would still receive their paychecks. Meanwhile, civilian workers have faced a lot of ups and downs since the government closed.

Half of the Dept. of Defense’s civilian workforce was initially furloughed, the Washington Post reported, but things might change for them this week. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled furloughed employees Saturday, meaning at least 200,000 of them will return to work.

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What happens next?

Congress first must figure out how to end the shutdown, something easier said than done. “(A solution) will not come from internal negotiations between the Republicans on the hill and the Obama White House because the two sides are too far apart,” Cook said.

Instead, Cook and Steger believe any agreement will stem from public disapproval. Steger said Republicans, particularly those from more moderate districts, will likely start to face “massive” pressure and be forced to make concessions. 

“These representatives are responsible to the constituencies that put them there,” Steger said. Cook said anyone who is frustrated or upset should contact his or her legislators. At this point, he said, a solution is probable but not guaranteed.

“Thinking that the situation will just resolve itself is not wise,” he said. Legislators also need to find a way to raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17 or the government could lose its borrowing authority.

Cook said it’s separate from the shutdown, and officials are less sure about the consequences of defaulting on debt because it’s never happened before. “No one knows, but it’s not a great place to experiment,” he said.