Parts of the federal government shut down at midnight Eastern on Dec. 21 after Congress and the president failed to reach agreement on stopgap funding. President Donald Trump demanded at least $5 billion in funding for an expanded and enhanced border wall with Mexico that was a flagship element in his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said at least 20 times since 2015 that Mexico would pay for the wall. Democrats in the House and Senate refused to meet Trump’s funding demands, as did some Republicans.
The president stood firm on his demand for the $5 billion, despite last-minute brokering by key Trump advisers with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to avert the partial closure with a continuing resolution that included $1.6 billion added for border security and would fund agencies without a budget through Feb. 29, 2019. Trump, as is his wont, took to Twitter late Friday night to argue his case directly to the public.
While a resolution previously passed the House with Trump’s requested $5 billion funding, the Senate was unable to achieve a 60-vote majority required to advance the bill to a straight up-down vote in the face of Democratic opposition.
As of midnight, a number of agencies representing about a quarter of government spending have partly or completely shut down their normal operations. Affected agencies include the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Justice, Transportation, and Treasury, as well as divisions that include the FDA, EPA, NASA, National Science Foundation, NOAA, and IRS.
Critical jobs within affected agencies and organizations continue to be staffed, amounting to about 420,000 workers, while over 380,000 workers began furloughs at midnight, according to a report by the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Most workers who are required to work do not receive paychecks during that period, though continuing resolutions when passed almost universally include back pay both for furloughed and active federal employees.
Other parts of government, about three-quarters, have budgets set in law through September 2019. Congress had passed several funding bills in a more orderly process this session than for many years, finding substantial bipartisan, bicameral majorities and even near unanimity on measures to re-authorize the FAA, cover defense spending, and fund health, human services, and education.
With shutdown plans made in advance, most of the Department of Homeland Security’s employees remain at work, as do 5,000 federal firefighters. However, 96% of NASA employees and 95% of Housing and Urban Development workers have to remain idle. Some agencies may have reserve funding to pay employees who have to perform their duties, but most do not. Some offices will process paperwork and tasks in progress, but not begin new business, such as new applications or last-minute passport applications.
Unlike with some previous shutdowns, the National Park Service will keep nearly all parks and monuments open, but with no staff or services available, and no bathrooms other than pit toilets. Roads will not be cleared of snow. Privately operated gift shops, visitor centers, and accommodations will remain open. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said the state has a plan ready to service the Grand Canyon National Park, however, according to the Associated Press.
The NORAD Santa Tracker, a tradition of “tracking” Santa’s Christmas Eve progress purportedly with military equipment, will also continue operation, as it relies on volunteers to operate. Try as politicians may, they can’t stop Christmas from coming. Somehow or other, it will come just the same.