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#Ask Cokie: Government Shutdowns


The United States government shuts down this weekend unless Congress and the president come up with a spending deal. A shutdown has happened before. Here's President Clinton just before many government offices closed in 1995.


BILL CLINTON: If America has to close down access to education, to a clean environment, to affordable health care to keep our government open, then the price is too high.

INSKEEP: Now Republicans are the ones who hope to avoid a shutdown since they are in charge. So let's ask Cokie about the history of government shutdowns. She joins us regularly to answer our questions about how the government works or doesn't. Cokie Roberts, hi there.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: And let's hear our first question.

AMEENAH DOSS: Hi. I am Ameenah Doss from Memphis, Tenn., and I was wondering, who does a government shutdown directly affect?


ROBERTS: Well, right away national parks, museums, zoos, monuments close down. Unemployment checks might not go out. Veterans' benefits might not go out. Loans for veterans, small businesses, homeowners. Any kind of permit would be delayed - guns, passports. But there are people who stay at work. The military stays at work along with critical workers like air traffic controllers and, of course, Steve, tax collectors.

INSKEEP: Tax collectors still bringing the money in but not able to spend any. Is the government able to spend any money on salaries for its workers? That's a question from Marissa Corr on Twitter.

ROBERTS: Well, the people who are out of work are furloughed, but in all our recent shutdowns, they have received back pay when they go back to work. But this is not without an effect. The 2013 shutdown, the estimate is that $2 billion was lost to the federal Treasury in worker productivity. So it's not just a game.

INSKEEP: OK. So government workers may not get paid. But there's one particular kind of person on the federal payroll who is on the mind of this next listener.

BRANDON SMITH: Hi. My name is Brandon Smith, and I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. Is it true that members of Congress still get paid during a government shutdown, and if so would it be possible for them to put in a rule or a law that they wouldn't get paid if the government is shut down? That might get them some extra incentive to make sure that a budget is always passed.

ROBERTS: Well, that might give them extra incentive, but interestingly, it would take a constitutional amendment for members of Congress to get paid. This is a very quirky thing that happened. Back with the very first Congress when the Bill of Rights went out to the states to be ratified, there were 12 amendments, not 10. Only 10 were ratified, and one that wasn't was one saying that members' salaries could not be changed until after an election. And a college student back in the '80s discovered the unratified amendment and took up the cause of ratification, and he succeeded. In 1992, more than a hundred years after it went out to the states, that amendment, now the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, was ratified. So you can't change a member of Congress's pay.

INSKEEP: Even if others are not being paid. One more question now, from Marjorie Desprez, who asks, why do lawmakers always seem to wait until the very last minute to come up with a solution?

ROBERTS: Well, like many of us, they need a deadline in order to get things done. But I've spent many a December 23rd in the Gallery when whole passels of bills get passed with Christmas upon the members, and apparently it has been this way historically. The very first Congress needed to create money, a uniform currency for the new country, instead of all the hodgepodge money in the States, but it couldn't get the votes to pass the bill until the week before that Congress adjourned. So it gets their attention.

INSKEEP: She made her deadline. So you just heard commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or by tweeting us with the hashtag #askcokie. Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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