The U.S. Government Shutdown: How the World Sees Us

People protest the government shutdown

BY VICTORIA SGARRO

The government shut down is a complicated topic to digest. Here is a breakdown of why it happened and what the rest of the world is saying.

What happened?

For the first time in 17 years, a polarized Congress failed to pass a budget in time for the start of a new fiscal year. As a result, the U.S. government closed all non-essential services on October 1, laying off over 800,000 federal employees..

Has this ever happened before?

The 2013 government shutdown marks the 18th time the U.S. government has closed since 1974, when the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act took budgetary power away from the White House and gave it to Congress.

This statistic might make a government shutdown seem like a commonplace occurrence. However, in the rest of the world, a government shutdown has only happened once — in Australia, for a few hours in 1975.

This is because other systems of government make a shutdown almost impossible.

For example, European democracies and many former British colonies use a parliamentary system in which the prime minister is the leader of the majority party in parliament. Therefore, the legislature will almost always approve a budget proposed by the prime minister.

In other democracies without a parliament, like Brazil, a stronger executive branch has the power to keep the government running in the event of a budget impasse.

And needless to say, dictatorships do not accept budget disagreements.

Thus, despite civil wars, natural disasters, and financial meltdowns, a government shutdown has almost never happened in any other country. “For most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news — the result of revolution, invasion or disaster,” says Anthony Zurcher of the BBC. “Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages.”

So why can a shutdown only happen in the U.S.?

The U.S. government shutdown is a relatively new historical development. Before 1980, the U.S. government acted like most other non-parliamentary democracies today, in that it could disagree on the federal budget while still continuing to operate.

However, this changed in 1980 when the Carter administration reinterpreted an old law called the 1884 Antideficiency Act more strictly. Following that interpretation, the U.S. government could not continue to operate unless Congress specifically authorized funding.

Erik Voeten explains in The Washington Post that this has to do with the “reversion value” for annual budgets: “In the U.S., if Congress does not pass a budget, then the budget for the next year equals zero. In most countries I know, if the politicians are too polarized to reach agreement, then the budget simply reverts to last year’s budget (or some other reversion value that keeps the government open).”

In the grander scheme of things, a government shutdown is the unfortunate and rare result of a democracy built on a system of checks and balances. The structure of the U.S. government allows different political parties to control the House and the Senate at the same time (currently Republicans control the House, while Democrats have majority in the Senate). Thus, the two parties sometimes resort to the threat of shutdown as a way negotiate and push their political agenda through Congress.

What are other countries saying?

Surprisingly, the U.S. government shutdown has not significantly disturbed the global economy or topped international news (probably because the world has seen this coming for a few weeks). But that is not to say that other countries understand or approve of the U.S. government shutdown.

Many countries expressed amazement and confusion at the shutdown, seeing it as a self-inflicted crisis:

“[American policymakers] are facing the unthinkable prospect of shutting down the government as they squabble over the inconsequential accomplishment of a 10-week funding extension.” – Mexico’s The News

“A superpower has paralyzed itself.” – Germany’s Der Spiegel

“[It doesn’t] say much for the budgetary processes in the world’s largest economy” – Australia’s The Weekend Australian

Some countries worried about the effect the shutdown would have on the rest of the world:

“Globalisation…means every country is in it together. Americans sneeze and Brits catch the flu.” – The U.K.’s The Independent

“Canadians can only pray their economy won’t be collateral damage. Anything that drags down the American economy drags the Canadian economy down with it.” – Canada’s Globe and Mail

Others blamed the situation on the Republican Party:

“The irresponsible way in which Congress, particularly Republicans, have played the politics of partisan petulance and obstruction in their determination to defund or at least delay President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, known as Obamacare, does them little credit.” – Malaysia’s Awani

“A small group of uncompromising Republican ideologues in the House of Representatives are principally responsive for this disaster. They are not only taking their own party to the brink, but the whole country. Unfortunately the leadership of this party has neither had the courage nor the backbone to put them in their place.” – Germany’s The Zeit

“The ‘Elephants’ are Robbing the U.S. Government” – Russia’s Rossliskaya Gazeta

But mostly, the world just mocked us:

“Jefferson, wake up, they’ve gone crazy!” – France’s Le Monde

“…could well have been scripted by Hollywood” – The U.K.’s The Guardian

Victoria Sgarro

Victoria Sgarro is a junior studying Comparative Literature in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at vrsgarro@wustl.edu.

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