A year to the day that Trump was elected President, there were historic protests around the States (the Women’s March) and the federal government shut down. Yes, you heard me, it stopped. The US Government can do that if it wants. If it gets tired it has a bit of a lie down. It’s happened before, over a dozen times. In 1995 the government stopped for about a month.

What exactly does that mean?

This week, we’ll take a deep dive into the eccentric corners of American politics (even more eccentric than usual), to explore just what the hell is happening over there. Those of you paying close attention will realise that this wasn’t what I had originally intended to write about this week, but since Friday, an entire corner of modern civilisation has stopped working for weird reasons, so I figured it was worth a look.

What’s a government shutdown?

It’s a practice entirely unique to the United States government. Yes, they make fun of us for still having the queen on the back of our coins – but they like to throw perfectly good tea into their harbours and halt their government from time to time.

It all stems from the Antideficieny Act, which basically says the government can’t spend more money than what has been allocated through their budgeting system. The current interpretation of the law means that when Congress and the President can’t come to a deal on finance, the government stops spending nonessential money, basically shutting down.

‘Non-essential’ government employees are furloughed – or placed on temporary unpaid leave. Usually, once these employees are allowed back into the building, they are compensated. The last time this happened, back in 2013, around 800,000 employees were furloughed for almost a fortnight. That time, the stand-still was about Obamacare. This time, it’s got a lot do with immigration. But we’ll get to that in a tick.

Among other things, over half of White House staff are told to go home, civilian military personnel in nonessential operations stand down, parts of the Justice Department slow right down, the US courts can keep going…but only for three weeks. There’s conflicting reports over whether national parks will be kept open – over the weekend, the Statue of Liberty turned away visitors (nicely echoing the immigration bill that’s struggling to pass). Here’s some more fun bits:

  • The IRS (the tax guys) had to furlough 90% of its staff in 2013. This delayed over US$4 billion in tax returns.
  • Processing of mortgages and other loans is impossible, as lenders can’t access government records of their customers.
  • In 2013, most healthcare and social security payments kept going, but there were delays for new applicants.
  • For the time being, air and rail employees will remain at work. The US Postal Service will also continue unhindered.

What’s caused the problem?

Well, if you believe President Trump, the Democrats are to blame. They’re ‘obstructionist losers’ according to him. This is odd, as this shutdown is the first in history to occur when the same party controls both Congress and the White House. The Republicans are in charge, so what’s the issue?

Congress has been trying to stave off this shutdown for weeks. But on Friday, in a late night, dramatic vote, Democrats stood together, and a small handful of Republicans joined them – forcing the shutdown. (Interesting to note that some Democrats voted with the Republicans as well.)

The key peace of legislation is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program – or DACA. It’s an Obama law that Trump wants to dump. The policy allows for some individuals who entered the States illegally as minors will receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and be eligible for a work permit. It was a free pass to immigrants who had entered the States as a child and had always had to hide because of their illegal status. The two-year period gave them a chance to breathe, get legal work, and work towards becoming a citizen. Almost 700,000 people are a part of the program. Trump is not a fan. He has claimed that immigrants are more likely to be criminals, take ‘real’ American jobs, and should be booted. In October 2017, he moved to get Congress to repeal the program. DACA recipients just had six months to “prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States” (quoting a White House memo).

What now? 

It’s day three of the shutdown as I write this. News has just broken that the Republicans and Democrats have come to a deal. It needs to go through the Senate and be signed by Trump, but it’s happening. Republicans gave up some ground on some health insurance policies, but there’s still no deal on DACA. Nevertheless, Democrats have given the go ahead to get the government up and running. Democrat leaders have criticised Trump, who was apparently absent during much of the negotiations.

Democrat negotiators apparently went so far as to put Trump’s Mexico wall on the negotiating table (it would have to be a big table, as the wall’s supposed to be huge) in an attempt to get things moving. But most Republicans held firm: they won’t move until enough Democrats come over to vote for a temporary money extension that would allow the government to run again. That’s essentially what’s happened.

It’s hard to tell, at this point, who’s winning the battle in public perception. Trump and Republicans are blaming Democrats, and Democrats are blaming Republicans. In the meantime, 800,000 people are unsure if they’ll be deported from the country they’ve called home since they were toddlers, and over a million people, up to a few hours ago, were unsure if they were going to be paid.

Last week, I looked at how Trump could be impeached. It’s unlikely with the House and Senate stacked full of Republicans. If the American public decide that this is the fault of the Republican Congress, than the November mid-term elections could be a bloodbath – and from there, 2019 will be a real barn burner.

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