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U.S. Politics Trump’s shutdown: A guide on how it started and why it’s over (for now)

Tijuana, Mexico, Jan. 8: A section of the US-Mexico border fence is seen from Baja California state. U.S. President Donald Trump's demands for congressional funding for a border wall have led to a weeks-long partial government shutdown.

GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

For 35 days, multiple branches of the U.S. government were ground to a halt by a feud between Congress and President Donald Trump over his promised border wall. Eventually, Mr. Trump caved and agreed to a spending bill without the US$5.7-billion he had been seeking for the wall. But the bill is only a temporary solution: Lawmakers have until Feb. 15 to come up with a more lasting compromise, and if they can’t, Mr. Trump says he’s willing to shut down the government all over again.

Here’s some background on how the political crisis escalated, why shutdowns are such a regular feature of U.S. politics in recent decades, and why shutdowns can’t happen under Canada’s political system.


What was closed and what was open

Jan. 7, 2019: A sign is seen on a fence in New York at the General Grant National Memorial as the partial U.S. government shutdown continues.

MIKE SEGAR/Reuters

From Dec. 22 to Jan. 28, a host of U.S. government agencies were closed because the federal government didn’t pass appropriations bills to give them the money they need to operate. Unlike some previous shutdowns, it didn’t affect every department; most agencies had their funding approved through to Sept. 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year. This shutdown affected only a quarter of federal agencies' employees in roles that have been deemed non-essential, which still covered a lot of services.

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What was closed

  • Tax investigations: The Internal Revenue Service was one of the affected agencies, and sent most of its work force home. Ordinarily a shutdown would also suspend payouts of tax refunds, but the White House budget office said on Jan. 7 that workers would be recalled from furlough to get those refunds delivered. 
  • National parks: The National Park Service, under the umbrella of the Interior department, ran some parks on skeleton crews, devolving others to state agencies and closing many more. 
  • Housing and Urban Development: Only a handful of essential staff remained in the department overseeing public housing, though it continued to make voucher payments for low-income families.
  • Commerce Department: If you needed U.S. economic or census data, you would have been out of luck during the shutdown. Some of the department’s more essential services, like weather-forecasting and processing of patent applications, were still running.
  • Personnel Management: The government’s human-resources branch was shut down.
  • Federal Communications Commission: This is the agency that regulates radio and TV broadcasting.

What wasn’t closed

  • Law enforcement: Most of the 245,000 employees of the Homeland Security department are deemed essential, so they were still on the job, but without pay. Agencies within that department include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service. FBI investigations continued, as did special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election (which, near the shutdown’s end, charged another of Mr. Trump’s associates, Roger Stone).
  • Transportation: Most staff at the Federal Aviation Administration, the aviation safety watchdog, were  still on the job, as was the Federal Highway Administration, which gets its funding from other sources.
  • Mail delivery: The U.S. Postal Service generates its own revenue, so it wasn’t affected by government shutdowns.

Which states are most affected

Federal civilian Employment by State

Fiscal year 2017. Reflects location of job.

Excludes U.S. Postal Service

3,039

19,537

62,366

152,466 

Ohio: 49,450

Oregon: 17,252

Illinois: 44,760

Virginia:

144,295

Texas:

132,952

Calif.: 152,466

D.C.:

141,367

Florida:

89,504

Md:

120,705

Alaska: 10,398

Hawaii: 23,453

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: United StateS Office Of PerSOnnel

ManageMent

Federal civilian Employment by State

Fiscal year 2017. Reflects location of job. Excludes U.S.

Postal Service

Ohio: 49,450

Oregon: 17,252

Illinois: 44,760

Virginia:

144,295

Texas:

132,952

D.C.:

141,367

Calif.: 152,466

Md:

120,705

Florida:

89,504

3,039

19,537

62,366

152,466 

Alaska: 10,398

Hawaii: 23,453

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: United StateS Office Of PerSOnnel ManageMent

Federal civilian Employment by State

Fiscal year 2017. Reflects location of job. Excludes U.S. Postal Service

Ohio: 49,450

N.Y.:

60,727

Oregon: 17,252

Illinois: 44,760

Virginia:

144,295

D.C.:

141,367

Texas:

132,952

Md:

120,705

Calif.: 152,466

Florida: 89,504

3,039

19,537

62,366

152,466 

Alaska: 10,398

Hawaii: 23,453

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: U.S. Office Of PerSOnnel ManageMent

Why can Americans just shut down their government?

Dec. 20, 2018: The statue of George Washington is seen beneath the Rotunda in the Capitol two days before the government shutdown began.

The Associated Press

To Canadians, shutdowns might seem like a bug in the U.S. political system: Why would you just let public services run out of money? But its place in American politics isn’t accidental; it took generations to create the mechanisms that make shutdowns possible.

Congress has had “power of the purse” since the founding of the United States in the 18th century. But by the 19th, government agencies and the military would sometimes abuse that power by deliberately running out of money and signing contracts they couldn’t afford, believing Congress would rather reimburse them than let services stop. Historians would later call this strategy “coercive deficiency.” After the Civil War, faced with soaring military spending and government debt, Congress tried to stop the practice with the Antideficiency Act, which barred the government from entering into contracts that weren’t fully funded first.

Washington tweaked and strengthened the act over the decades, but for most of its history, agencies weren’t required to close if Congress missed a deadline for passing appropriations bills. Sometimes the agencies would shut down, but at other times they would keep working on credit. That changed under Republican president Ronald Reagan, whose attorney-general took a hard-line interpretation of the law and insisted that agencies without funding should stop nonessential work. The Reagan administration saw eight shutdowns of four days or fewer.

Since then, Americans have seen some lengthy shutdowns affecting hundreds of thousands of government workers. At 35 days, Mr. Trump’s shutdown is the longest ever. The most recent shutdown before it was in 2013, when Democratic president Barack Obama was at odds with a Republican-controlled House over his signature health-care policy.

Why doesn’t Canada have government shutdowns?

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

There are many, many differences between the U.S. political system and Westminster-style parliaments like Canada’s, but here are a few that address why an American-style shutdown wouldn’t happen here:

  • If a Canadian budget doesn’t pass, the government falls. Budgets and other sorts of confidence motions (potentially including some of the supply bills that actually authorize government spending) trigger a new election if they fail in the House of Commons, and whoever wins can then pass a new budget. This would only happen in minority Parliaments, which are generally rare because of how Canada’s electoral system works.
  • There is no elected counterpart to the House that could reject a budget outright. Budgets do require approval by senators and royal assent from the governor-general, but neither of those offices are elected. So while it is possible for a Senate to be at odds with the House of Commons over spending matters, the senators have no mandate from voters to reject budgets completely or do wholesale rewrites. They would, at best, make amendments and send the bill back to MPs. And whereas in the U.S. system, the president (who is both head of state and head of government) can veto legislation, the governor-general (the representative of Canada’s head of state, the Queen) is prevented by centuries of tradition from refusing royal assent to a bill. If they did, it would be an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
  • The Governor-General can authorize money without Parliament. In special circumstances, such as an election period, the governor-general can issue a special warrant to the president of the Treasury Board to make sure essential government services get their money. 

The origins of this shutdown

Jan. 6, 2019: A man looks through the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. President Donald Trump's demand for more money to build a border wall have allowed the government shutdown to drag on.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

The latest shutdown started because of President Donald Trump’s demand to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border, one of his first campaign pledges in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump once boasted that Mexico would pay for the wall, but now he wants US$5-billion from Congress to finance it, and the Democrats are vocally opposed.

Mr. Trump triggered the shutdown in December when he rejected a spending package from Congress (both houses of which were then still controlled by his own party) to fund the government until February. Mr. Trump insisted that any spending bill contain the US$5-billion for the wall.

About two weeks later, the new Democrat-controlled House was sworn in, and one of its first acts was to pass two bills that would reopen most of the government and buy a little more time for Homeland Security funding. Mr. Trump rejected the compromise, and the House Democrats turned to other options, such as legislation to reopen the closed departments one by one. The Senate ended up voting on two bills on Jan. 24 that would have reopened the government, but both failed.

Finally, Mr. Trump caved to political pressure and agreed to a temporary spending bill that would fund the government until Feb. 15, effectively agreeing to the Democrats' original plan to buy time for a permanent solution.

land ownership along southern border

CALIF.

ARIZ.

N.M.

UNITED STATES

Tucson

Tijuana

El Paso

TEXAS

Big Bend

Nat’l Park

Nogales

Laredo

MAP KEY

MEXICO

Existing fence

Federal lands

Brownsville

Tribal lands

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: cato

institute; government accounting office;

graphic news

land ownership along southern border

CALIF.

ARIZ.

N.M.

UNITED STATES

Tucson

Tijuana

El Paso

TEXAS

Big Bend

Nat’l Park

Nogales

Pacific

Ocean

Laredo

MAP KEY

MEXICO

Existing fence

Federal lands

Brownsville

Tribal lands

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: cato

institute; government accounting office; graphic news

land ownership along southern border

CALIF.

ARIZ.

N.M.

San

Diego

UNITED STATES

Tucson

Tijuana

El Paso

TEXAS

Nogales

Big Bend

Nat’l Park

Pacific

Ocean

Laredo

MAP KEY

MEXICO

Existing fence

Federal lands

Brownsville

Tribal lands

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: cato institute; government

accounting office; graphic news

barrier status along the

u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press;

new york times

barrier status along the

u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press;

new york times

barrier status along the u.s. southern border

In kilometres

Total length

of border

3,126 km

Barrier already

in place

before Trump

1,052

US$292-million re-

placement barrier

approved by Congress

in Calif., N.M., Texas

199

Replacement barrier

already started

or completed

64

Replacement barrier

to be completed

by May 2019

22.4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: associated press; new york times

What could happen next?

Jan. 25, 2019: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs a bill to reopen the federal government on Capitol Hill.

ERIN SCHAFF/The New York Times News Service

A bipartisan committee now has until Feb. 15 to come up with a border-security package that all sides are happy with. This could involve redefining what a “wall” is: Mr. Trump has backed away from the idea of a full physical barrier across the entire border. But Mr. Trump has said that if he doesn’t get the deal he wants, he could declare a state of emergency and redirect money from the Defence Department to build the wall without Congress’s approval.

Presidents have some unilateral powers under the National Emergencies Act, but they still need to notify Congress and give specific and credible reasons for taking extreme action. In this case, Mr. Trump would need to demonstrate that migrant border crossings (which are less frequent now than they were in the 2000s) constitute an “emergency,” and he would be challenged in Congress or in court on that point.

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Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Reuters, Associated Press and Adrian Morrow

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