How does a President actually shut down the government?

How does a President actually shut down the government? Who does the actual shutting down and what powers does the president have to shut it down?

I look forward to your feedback

Who said that the President has the ability to “shut down the government”? What is this in reference to?


The government needs money to continue to operate, and that money is allocated in a budget, which is a kind of bill passed by Congress. Like any bill, it can be vetoed.

The business of keeping the government running depends on appropriations bills becoming law, to keep the government funded. Such bills need to be passed by both houses of Congress, and then signed by the President.

Government can’t function if its people cannot be paid and its obligations can’t be met, so when funding is blocked, then essentially it stops working.

In the past couple of decades, this mechanism has been the target of some grandstanding and hostage-taking. In the Obama years, Congress passed bills that fund the government but would also roll back ACA, and Obama held out for a “clean” bill. Right now Trump is doing the opposite, Congress is offering him a “clean” bill to keep the government open, but he wants funding for wall, so he won’t sign it.

Except that the entire government, even in this case, isn’t completely shut down-some essential services will continue, and some others will continue working with a delay in pay.

As for the mechanics of the actual shutting down, the President would sign an Executive Order directing department heads to designate who is essential for national security and who is not. Department heads usually delegate this to middle management, and rosters are put together. Those being sent home will receive notices to that effect (I think it’s a notice of furlough, but might have a different name). They’ll have 3 hours or so to do whatever they need to do to prepare for a long absence. They won’t show up again until a boss calls them, but of course, they can just watch the news like the rest of the country, too.

The people left in the office carry on like normal, mainly. At that point, it’s too varied from office to office to really summarize.

Someone else can maybe take it from here.

Moderator Note

Given that the government shut down has been all over the news for the last few days, and that the President does have a role in it, it’s glaring obvious what the OP is in reference to. Please don’t feign ignorance like this in GQ. Posts like this are not helpful.

General Questions Moderator

According to this report from Reuters about 15% of the government will be effected.


The article tells how each department will be affected. All in all, while parts of the government will be handicapped(some worse than others), the government itself will not be shut down.

Thanks for the detail. But this is always what is referred to when a “government shutdown” is discussed.

I thought the details of how much(or how little) of this “government shutdown” is hyperbole might address the OP’s question.
edited to add: I have no idea what the OP is thinking when he refers to a “government shutdown”, since he indicated he didn’t know how it happened in the first place.

Congress funds government branches with spending bills. To pass bills, the House and Senate have to pass identical spending bills.

The President then needs to sign the bill. The President can choose not to sign a bill (the veto), unless Congress overrides the veto. The President can state ahead of time that he won’t fund a bill unless it contains something he wants (like funding for steel slats) even though it contains all the important funding for the government. If that’s the case, the House or Senate might refuse to pass a bill that the President won’t sign. However, their efforts to pass a bill with $5 Billion of funding for something relatively unimportant will fail, because the opposition will vote against the bill.

If a spending bill comes to the President, and he vetoes it, and there’s not enough votes to override the President’s veto, then the government is unfunded.

So in effect, a proper spending bill had been passed in one branch of Congress. The President said he would support it, then suddenly changed his mind and said he would veto it. The other branch tried to pass a bill with a 5 billion wall of steel slats, to defend against unarmed refugee seekers, and the Democrats said no.

So in short, stubborn Democrats won’t support the kind of stupid bill needed to get Trump’s ever-shifting support.

You didn’t provide any detail in your response or explain why it was hyperbole. You just feigned ignorance of what the OP was talking about, when this was obvious to anyone who has seen any headlines. Of course the OP doesn’t understand it, that’s why he was asking the questions. It would have been more helpful to offer some explanation at the outset.

I’m afraid I don’t have detail on the mechanics of how a department gets “shut down,” and I have seen some reports that the departments themselves are confused on what will actually happen and how to implement it.

I just wanted to add that not all of the government is affected–most of the departments are fully funded (at least temporarily) under other budget resolutions.

CNN says:

“Funding for roughly a quarter of the federal government expired at midnight, including appropriations for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Housing and Urban Development and other parts of the government.”

It obviously also depends on what type of government operation is in question. The National Parks, for instance, weren’t necessarily “shut down”–at least Sequoia wasn’t. I went there this morning, and it was open. They had put an announcement on their website about which aspects of the park would be functioning, and which wouldn’t. The front gate where they take your fee to enter was empty of employees, but it wasn’t closed. Everyone just drove in. The visitor centers were closed, as well as some of the roads, but the main routes were open. We saw one ranger vehicle go by, but other than than, no federal employees were to be seen.

If the funding “stops” at midnight, most employees aren’t even going to be at their job anyway to be sent home. It’s more like they get some kind of communication that says, “Don’t come in until you get further notice.”

This is a summary version, there are complexities that I can address if this poses further questions.

  1. No money can be spent in government unless it is done through legislation. In our system, that means a piece of legislation:1) must pass by a majority (typically 217/435 in the House of Representatives and typically 60/100 votes in the Senate AND then signed into law by the President, or 2) if after the President refuses to sign, the legislation may nonetheless become law without the President’s signature with 2/3rds approval of each House.

  2. This money bills are typically done in large omnibus bills. There is not a piece of legislation for the purpose of each pencil or stapler. Congress typically passes huge bills funding very large parts of the government.

  3. As part of this bill funding large portions of the government, Trump is threatening to withholding his approval of the bill unless it contains funding for his proposed border wall. This provision has passed the House of Representatives by a majority, but he does not have the 60 votes needed in the Senate for wall funding.

Likewise, the opposition to the border wall does not have the 2/3 vote in each House to override a Trump veto.

The parties are at an impasse.

Should Congress pass legislation without funding for the border wall, Trump will withhold his approval, the general revenue bill will fail and there will be no funding for a large portion of the government.

If Trump backs off of his pledge to withhold his approval, this large portion of the government would be funded, but there will be no funding for the border wall.

Likewise if Congress does pass funding for the border wall, Trump will sign the legislation, then these large portions of the government will be funded as well as the border wall.

This being GQ, you may research the issue and come to your conclusion as to whose “fault” this is. But to answer your question, a President has no power to simply decree that the government be shut down.

It should be noted that the 60-vote threshold in the Senate is purely tradition (of not especially long standing), implemented in rules that can be changed by majority vote. If the Republican controlled Senate wanted to pass this appropriation including “border wall” money, they could change their own rules. But they don’t really want the border wall, certainly not enough to alter the easily changeable rules. It is simply more convenient to hold a party-line vote, claim the Democrats are the problem, and go home.

As an aside, I would note that similar situation can arise in other countries. Here in Oz, back in 1975 the senate (which was controlled by the opposition party) refused to pass the “supply” bill. Which is much the same problem. As we don’t have a president, that role didn’t come into the question. The final resolution was the, still highly controversial, dismissal of the incumbent government and calling of another election. This was on the basis that the incumbent government could no longer govern, and thus the governor general (aka the Queen’s representative who appoints the government) decided an election was needed.
So, as an additional question for the US - how is an impasse broken? Assume the POTUS is intransigent, and will under no circumstances pass the bill. What other options exist? I understand that a bill can be forced past the POTUS, but what if the numbers can’t be mustered, or the politics are too intricate. Is there a mechanism by which say the SCOTUS can intervene? Even without the senate?

There is no such mechanism in place. The legislature can remove the president by impeachment if they want, but if they have the votes to do that, they probably have the votes to override a veto, too.

Eventually public outcry would be loud enough that enough senators would vote to override the veto.