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I thought I understood roughly how US "government shutdowns" worked: If Congress (the legislative branch) is unable or unwilling to pass a law authorizing the executive branch to spend public funds on running the government, civil servants can't be paid and so they naturally stop working. This continues until Congress manages to pass such a law.

However, the current shutdown was, if I understand the news coverage correctly, triggered by the president declining to give his assent to a "short-term spending bill". If that is correct, then the legislative branch has authorized the executive to spend some monies, and all that remains is for the executive branch to utilize that authorization.

Wouldn't that situation be more accurately described as "the government has gone on strike" (i.e. on its own initiative, to put pressure on the other branches) rather than "the government has been shut down" (by an outside influence)?

Or, asked in a different way: If the president wants to halt government work, why would he need to wait for an opportunity to veto an appropriation bill? Can't he just at any time, embodying the executive branch, decide not to spend all the money he has been authorized to?

  • The first version of the question might be considered opinion/semantics. The “different way” question seems better. – chirlu Dec 23 '18 at 3:36
  • "If that is correct, then the legislative branch has authorized the executive to spend some monies, and all that remains is for the executive branch to utilize that authorization." The legislative branch can't pass a budget without either the President's approval or a 2/3 vote. With the President's approval, only a majority vote is needed. – David Schwartz Dec 23 '18 at 5:42
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    What sense does it make? You're completely ignoring who happens to be occupying the office of President at the moment. It's not sense, it's him having a tantrum because Congress won't give him money for his "beautiful wall". – jamesqf Dec 23 '18 at 19:32
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    @jamesqf: I'm ignoring that because my goal is to understand the mechanisms rather than launch a pro/contra debate about that particular president. – Henning Makholm Dec 23 '18 at 20:23
  • @Henning Makholm: Then perhaps you need to re-word the title, and make the question more general? For the process, the government can't spend money without passing a bill authorizing the spending, which then needs to either be signed into law by the President, or have his veto overridden. But (as I understand it) Trump is using a "pocket veto". A President has 10 days to either sign a bill or veto it. If the old appropriations bill expires before then, then the government can't spend money. If Congress adjourns before that time, they can't act to override a veto. – jamesqf Dec 24 '18 at 5:45
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[In] the current shutdown [i]f that is correct, then the legislative branch has authorized [spending but the President declined]

Nope. In the US (federal) system, a law can be enacted two ways:

  • it is passed by each of the House and Senate by simple majority, 'presented' to the President, and he signs it; or

  • after veto by the President, it is re-passed by each chamber by 2/3 (which 'overrides' the veto).

This is the same for appropriation laws as all other laws. Even if both chambers had passed the same bill and presented it, which they didn't (yet) in this case, without the President's signature or an override it is not law, and does not authorize spending (or more exactly obligation).

If the president wants to halt government work, why would he need to wait for an opportunity to veto an appropriation bill? Can't he just at any time, embodying the executive branch, decide not to spend all the money he has been authorized to?

That's a different situation, called impoundment. Just as the executive has long been prohibited to obligate without an appropriation by the Antideficiency Act -- see Why does a US government shutdown have a specific beginning time? for more detail -- for several decades it is conversely required to obligate the appropriations it does have, with a limited exception, by the Impoundment Control Act. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, GAO recently rendered an opinion on this, at some length, in https://www.gao.gov/products/B-330330 and https://www.gao.gov/products/B-330330.1 -- both titled "Impoundment Control Act--Withholding of Funds through Their Date of Expiration" but to different requesting committees.

  • But the missing action in that case is something that must be done by the president -- i.e. by the government itself, rather than the legislature. It's not like the government is forbidden from signing the law it has available for signing, and start spending. – Henning Makholm Jan 4 at 0:24
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    We call all 3 branches part of the government, but I think your point is that the President, as head of the executive, can to an extent interfere with the power and actions of the legislature by using the veto. That's true. But it means that if the President vetos and is not overridden there is NO law for him to 'take care' to execute, and he is neither required nor allowed to carry it out, in this case by spending. – dave_thompson_085 Jan 4 at 0:31
  • (But "the government" means specifically the executive branch, as opposed to the legislative and judicial branch). What prevents the president from signing the law that is available for him to sign? He can't meaningfully go out and say "the legislature will not let me spend money" when the only thing that is missing for him to spend money is his own action. – Henning Makholm Jan 4 at 0:35
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    Parliamentary countries (at least some) use 'government' that way, but US uses it for all 3 branches. Yes, if the bill were on his desk, he couldn't honestly say "the legislature is stopping me" but he could honestly say "I veto this bill because it doesn't do what I demanded, and as a result I am legally in the right in keeping those departments closed". – dave_thompson_085 Jan 4 at 8:30
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Yes in fact 5 billion dollars have been allocated to border security by the house. However that bill isn't passing the senate due to a Democratic filibuster, and the Republicans can't conjure 60 votes to override it.

So in a sense what you wrote above is inaccurate - the legislative branch hasn't authorised this bill yet.

Trump therefore 'took the mantle' to shut down the government himself, until he gets funding for the intended border wall.

Also in a sense, yes Trump is striking, and from own understanding he can do this whenever - the Republicans have shut down the government three times in 2018 already.

My own assessment is that this is just a political play - Trump seems to think he can blame this shutdown on the Democrats in some way. In 2013 the Republicans forced a shutdown, and came out strong victors in the following mid terms..

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    I had the impression that there had been a temporary spending bill passed by both houses, which only needed a presidential signature to go into effect -- based on The Guardian writing: "Earlier in the week, Trump had seemed set to avoid a shutdown by signing a short-term spending bill without his requested wall funding. Then he reversed ...". If this is not true (fake?), then the premise of my question falls apart. – Henning Makholm Dec 23 '18 at 21:12
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    @HenningMakholm It’s not entirely clear to me either, but I think it was just an agreed-on deal, that hadn’t yet been brought up for a vote when Trump reneged. It is currently the Democrats who are holding things up, by refusing to agree to the changes Trump wants. – Bobson Dec 24 '18 at 14:46
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Or, asked in a different way: If the president wants to halt government work, why would he need to wait for an opportunity to veto an appropriation bill? Can't he just at any time, embodying the executive branch, decide not to spend all the money he has been authorized to?

Even if the political implication (of not spending money on activities which are considered essential) is taken out of the consideration, there is a number of activities which are prescribed by law. So not spending of the money on those activities (if the money is available) may not be one of options afforded to a President by law.

However, the current shutdown was, if I understand the news coverage correctly, triggered by the president declining to give his assent to a "short-term spending bill". If that is correct, then the legislative branch has authorized the executive to spend some monies, and all that remains is for the executive branch to utilize that authorization.

The actual reason for the shutdown is, of course, well-known and it is understood to be part of the negotiating calculus of using political pressure on the Congress by the executive branch in the stride of "if you want to fund the rest of the government, then we demand that you also fund the key signature program that we want funded." So the aim of the shut down is not halting the operation of the government. But rather, it is to use the shutdown as a leverage.

  • "So the aim of the shut down is not halting the operation of the government. But rather, it is to use the shutdown as a leverage." This sounds exactly like a strike. Refusing to do the normally assigned work due to wanting more money for something. – Vality Jan 4 at 0:17

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