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American Shutdown Story

One of our newest members, Alberto Pozzebon, makes now his debut on the VDS’blog by giving us a precise account of the circumstances in nowadays American political environment that led to the paralysis of the public sector, due to the so-called “shutdown”. In an increasingly-interconnected world both on the level of information and on the economic one, the internal vicissitudes of the first economic power in the Western World must undoubtedly draw the attention of us in the Old Continent.


Basic functions of the government were frozen, museums were closed and even the Statue of Liberty needed to use NYC’s funds in order to remain open. In addition, around 800,000 federal employees were left without pay. These were some of the consequences of what became the longest government shutdown in US history. It was an awkward self-inflicted paralysis difficult to understand for an external viewer, being a political mechanism unique of its kind.

The headlines of the major journals all throughout the world are all focused on the Congress apparent resolution: on Friday 25, President Trump signed a bill reopening the Government. Some matters, though, are still open. What was the political result of the shutdown? Or, more importantly, is there a possibility that the U.S. government will freeze in the near future? In order to answer such questions, we first need to understand the different facets of such phenomena.


A government shutdown occurs whenever the Congress misses a deadline for passing the bill that periodically approves federal funding (something that we would call ‘Legge di Bilancio'). The legal basis of such procedure is to be found in the provisions of the Anti-deficiency Act, a law that seeks to prevent the incurring of obligations or the making of expenditures that are not fully covered by funds. Hence, government agencies that lack an approved spending plan are blocked, their workers furloughed or forced to work for free. As a matter of national security, the military, Social Security, Medicare, air traffic control and prisons are always kept open.

The shutdown, dated from 22nd December, was the result of a deadlock between Democrats and President Trump. The two parties could not agree over a $5.7 billion fund directed towards the creation of the warhorse of Trump’s presidential campaign: the wall at Mexico’s border. The debate over this measure has consistently been subject to fierce opposition by the Democrats but the Congress has always succeeded in avoiding the problem, with Republicans giving up the wall in exchange for other, more compelling, priorities.

Last December, nevertheless, Trump reported that he would have vetoed every spending plan lacking funds for its beloved wall. This position was probably the result of a spreading discontent among far-right media over the cornerstone of its promises. The spending bill including the wall-destined fund package passed at the House (the lower chamber) thanks to Republicans’ votes but run aground at the Senate, leading the Government to a partial shutdown.

Against this backdrop, 9 over 15 US federal departments were closed, namely the Departments of State, Justice, Treasury, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Homeland Security. Trump also announced that the American delegation’s trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos would have been cancelled, showing how also the diplomatic relations of the State were jeopardized.

What occurred was unprecedented for what it concerns its duration, but one should note, however, that such phenomenon took place 21 times starting from the 80’s: it is, consequently, a typical feature of the US political system. Even President Obama resorted to a 16 days shutdown in order to pass funds for Obamacare. This event, however, is not comparable to the current one since the real divider was the Administration will to raise the debt ceiling, something that the two parties later agreed on.

On January the 19th, President Trump explained what he thought it would have been a common-sense compromise. In order to convince the Democrats, he proposed a new bill, which would have included two elements:

  1. Three years of legislative relief for 700,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Children Arrivals) recipients

  2. A three-year extension of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants whose protections are facing expiration

The Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused the proposal judging it ‘a compilation of several previously rejected initiatives, each of which is unacceptable and in total, do not represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people’s lives’.

The watershed can be located on January 25, when Trump announced to have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the government. The Congress passed a funding bill reopening the federal departments for a period of three weeks. This will enable workers to receive the delayed salaries and the parties to discuss further on the funds for the wall. Some see the tycoon’s decision as a political defeat since the new bill does not include what Trump asked. Others say that the president was forced to find a solution in view of the fact that the majority of the American blame the situation on him. Nonetheless, the President added that if he will not get a fair deal the Government will be either shut down again on February 15 or he will resort to “the powers afforded to me under the law and constitution of the US to address this emergency”. Trump is here referring to his power to declare a state of national emergency that will permit him to get around the Congress and force the implementation of the funds. Having said that, there is disagreement over the legality of such procedure so we cannot forecast with certainty what will be decided.

What is sure, on the other hand, are the severe consequences that this political game inflicted to the economy: apart from the thousands of citizens that were forced to struggle to pay their bills, the shutdown is calculated to be the responsible for a loss of 6 billion dollars.

A consideration can, therefore, be drawn. The shutdown is a further sign of how the political discourse is getting more and more polarised. Trump has not hinted a real resolution yet and the problem is just postponed. Extended stalemates of this kind are not useful to anyone, they only contribute to undermine democracy: as Obama put out a few years ago "democracy means comprise even when you are 100% right".

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