So, It seemed as though an act or lack there of from congress caused this "Government Shutdown" to happen.

My question is:

What specifically has to happen for a government shutdown to happen? Does congress have to vote to approve it? If a particular vote doesn't happen does the government get shut down.

I'm interested Exclusively in the mechanics of a shutdown, not speculation about people's motivations.

2 Answers 2


This is covered reasonably well on the Wikipedia page, so I'll quote it here.

Under the separation of powers created by the United States Constitution, both the Senate and House of Representatives must approve an agreed budget, which then goes to the President of the United States for signature. If the President vetoes the budget, it goes back to Congress, where the veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote. Government shutdowns tend to occur when the President and one or both of the chambers of Congress are unable to resolve disagreements over budget allocations before the existing budget cycle ends.

[In other countries], a strong executive branch typically has the authority to keep the government functioning even without an approved budget. This was the case in the United States up until 1980, when the administration of Jimmy Carter interpreted the 1884 Antideficiency Act to limit the power of federal agencies in the lack of congressional approval.

Effectively, the President and the rest of the executive branch aren't allowed to spend money if Congress haven't approved it. So a shutdown is basically the government saying "We can't do anything that incurs costs."
Exceptions are made for public safety (per standing law), the active duty military (per a bill which did get passed to approve it), and things which are funded outside the standard budgeting process (such as Social Security).

  • 1
    "Effectively, the President and the rest of the executive branch aren't allowed to spend money if Congress haven't approved it." A shutdown can also occur if the Congress approves the budget but the President vetoes it.
    – Readin
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 5:04

Basically, Congress decides they don't want to spend money. This can happen for various reasons. Examples(not all of which have happened, but I think these are pretty clear and realistic examples):

-no one wants to pay off our debt (republicans disagreeing with a democratic president)

-the president threatens to veto a budget plan unless something he wants in the budget is approved in return, or vice versa (like if the president, let's pretend Bush, were to threaten to veto Congressional budget plan unless we spent money on war)

I don't know if the latter of these two has happened but let's use those as an example. Like Bobson said above, its when they can't agree so they decide not to do anything that involves spending money. Since practically everything the government does involves spending money, it shuts down temporarily. Make sense?

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    The question specifically asked about the mechanics of a shutdown and not the motivations. Your answer was mostly about motivations. Commented May 18, 2014 at 17:20
  • You've got a good point. But didn't I mention what you said about the President not being able to do anything without Congressional approval?
    – user2932
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 18:49

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