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Shutdown watch: A guide to the mad dash to fund the federal government

The government could shut down at the end of the month unless Congress comes to an agreement.

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Welcome to shutdown watch 2023, where the House and Senate try to fund the federal government before the fiscal year 2024 before funding runs out at midnight on September 30th — or else, the government shuts down. 

There are precious few legislative days left for both chambers this month, and none of the appropriations bills that need to be signed into law to stave out a shutdown have passed both chambers (in fact, just one, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, has passed the House). 

Right now, there are three scenarios in play: 

  • Congress does nothing and shuts down the government at midnight on September 30th;
  • Congress passes one or more continuing resolutions (“CR”) that extend FY2023 funding at current levels until a certain date, moving a potential shutdown date further down the calendar, likely around the Christmas holiday. 
  • Congress passes some or all of the 12 separate appropriations bills to fund the government through September 30, 2024, averting a shutdown for some or all of the federal government.

Here’s a look at more about each of the those possible scenarios: 

No appropriations bills pass by Sept. 30

This one’s easy: if Congress doesn’t pass any funding bills, the government shuts down at midnight on Sept. 30 until they reach an agreement to fund all, or some, of the federal agencies that require Congress to appropriate funds. 

Congress passes some, but not all, its appropriations bills

This path is relatively straight forward too — in this case, there is a partial government shutdown. The agencies that have been funded remain open and begin operating at their funding levels for the 2024 fiscal year. The agencies that haven’t been funded shut down. 

One wrinkle here is that Congress can sidestep a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution that takes those unfunded agencies and extends their funding at 2023 fiscal year funding until full appropriations bills pass, or those continuing resolutions expire. 

Congress passes a full continuing resolution for the federal government

This is an effort to kick the can down the road, with the government remaining open at previous funding levels while Congress works to pass the full year appropriations bills. 

  • A “clean” CR: This would be a continuing resolution that continues FY2023 funding with zero changes. This is what Democrats (as well as many Republicans) would prefer and vote for. But some House conservatives say they won’t support a CR to extend FY2023 funding because they don’t agree with the current government funding levels. Just 9 House Republicans voted in favor of the last government funding bill in December 2022; 200 voted against.
  • A “conditional” CR: Some conservatives plan to use the leverage of a narrow Republican majority to demand policy changes to FY2023 funding levels in return for averting a government shutdown. This would likely alienate House and Senate Democrats, and potentially Senate Republicans as well. But if the House and Senate cannot agree on one version of a CR by midnight on September 30th, the government will shut down.
  • How long would a CR last?: This is still undecided; the House and Senate leadership have to get together to hammer out a deal. A CR can last for a few days, weeks or months. In previous years, congressional leaders have passed a CR in late September that expires just before the holidays to increase pressure on rank and file lawmakers to agree to a broader funding deal and avoid a pre-Christmas shutdown. McCarthy has publicly vowed not to do that.

It’s possible that Congress can’t agree to a permanent funding bill after one continuing resolution, forcing them to either agree to another one or prompting another government shutdown. Additionally, if all 12 appropriations bills are not signed into law by the end of 2023, there will be an automatic 1 percent cut to all discretionary spending (this does not include mandatory spending programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security). The automatic cut was included in the agreement reached earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling. 

And here are some other frequently asked questions that could arise during the funding debate: 

What happens during a government shutdown? 

Agencies are minimally staffed by employees who have been deemed “essential.” They work without being paid, while all “non-essential” employees will be sent home — though in previous shutdowns, Congress has passed legislation to give back pay to workers. Typically, law enforcement and prison employees, TSA employees, Border Patrol, Forest Service Firefighters, and Weather Service forecasters are deemed essential and work without pay. Most automatic government benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are paid out (they have a separate funding stream), though some benefits like WIC and school meals that are funded through the appropriations process will be cut off. The various litigation efforts targeting President Trump would continue. Congress historically has been unable to issue subpoenas during a shutdown, but that guidance is still being developed for this year.


What about funding for Ukraine and disaster relief? 

In mid August, Biden sent a request to Congress for an additional $40 billion dollars in additional money for Ukraine ($24 billion), ongoing federal disaster relief ($12 billion), and border security ($4 billion). At the end of the month, following Hurricane Idalia, he said he was going to request another $4 billion. This kind of money is called a “supplemental appropriations request” and is usually passed outside of the normal funding process. Several more conservative House and Senate Republicans have expressed hesitation or opposition to continued Ukraine funding.