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Today's Washington Post has the article Congress, Obama Brace for Showdown as Government Shutdown Looms, which contains the following sentence:

The prospect of a government shutdown appeared more possible Saturday after the House passed a budget measure in the pre-dawn hours that cuts $61 billion - and was immediately rejected by Senate Democrats and President Obama.

What does government shutdown mean? Unlike stores and factories, or Greece and Iceland, how can the government of America shut down, or get paralyzed with its operation? I know it's a naive question, but I don't understand a government can stop its function in reality.

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closed as off topic by mmyers Feb 23 '11 at 17:43

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This seems more of a question about US politics than about the English language — your reading of the language involved sounds absolutely right to me, but I don’t quite understand in what sense the government would be “shut down” either. –  PLL Feb 21 '11 at 2:34
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I agree this is off-topic, but here's the Wikipedia article on the US federal government shutdown of 1995. –  Dori Feb 21 '11 at 2:58

3 Answers 3

What jjackson described is something else - gridlock. (The metaphor is taken from a traffic jam where all of the cars are "locked" in the "grid" of streets - so each car is blocked by another one, and none of them can move. In a similar vein, then, when you have - as now - one house of Congress controlled by one party and the other by the other one, then each one can block the other from passing legislation.)

A "government shutdown," on the other hand, means basically what it sounds like: various federal offices will be closed, and their workers will be out of the office, until a budget is passed and their funding is allocated (or until they are defunded by an act of Congress). Exceptions are made for essential services such as police and firefighters; these continue to operate normally during a government shutdown.

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The US is, as far as I know, unique in this feature. Most governments will continue ongoing (as opposed to special) funding at previously-approved levels while a budget is in limbo. In the US, at least at the federal level, budgets actually expire and non-emergency funding ceases until new funding is approved. –  bye Feb 21 '11 at 3:30
    
Alex.The gridlock reminds me of my earlier question 'How do you say 'twisted' congress power balance (in English)? I posted in the forum on January 10th, and many answerers liked that wording, gridlock. To me too, gridlock status sounds more comfortable than hearing that great U.S. government shutdown, but it’ll be another matter. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 21 '11 at 3:58
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I guess it's a good thing Belgium doesn't operate that way! :) –  Benjol Feb 21 '11 at 5:59
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@Benjol: perhaps it might have been better if Belgium operated like that: they might be a tad faster if all funding had stopped... –  Martijn Feb 21 '11 at 15:49

It means the government is stalled, as the party who has the majority in the House of Representatives is not the President's party. In this situation, there will not possibly be any progress, as the President will probably reject what the House of Representative has approved.

What reported from newspapers or magazines should not be taken too literally, as they usually exaggerate the situation, especially a negative one.

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I don’t mind a newspaper or magazine invents or adopts a negative expression for political matters just for sensation. It’s the nature of mass media. But I feel curious when it becomes an established word everybody takes it for granted for the government of the United States of America we adore. Off course, it’s not an issue that foreigners can meddle in. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 21 '11 at 9:10
    
As Alex said, this would usually be termed partisan gridlock. A government shutdown is specifically when the budget is delayed so long the government no longer has an authorization to spend money. At that point most everyday government activities cease. –  Matthew Flaschen Feb 23 '12 at 0:34

Right now the US government needs to pass a budget before it can move on to other issues. The House of Representatives is dominated by the Republican Party, which means that any bill that they pass is going to have very strong support from the Republicans and be strongly opposed by the Democrats. However, every bill must be signed or vetoed by the president, and as a Democrat Obama is unlikely so sign any bill his party opposes. So until these two sides can come to an agreement on the budget then the government will be effectively "shut down"--incapable of passing any legislation.

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JJackson. In Japanese, we have a word ‘Kaiten Kyugyo-開店休業,’ meaning the store is open, but business is closed. I think it applies to the government shutdown. Still the word, ‘shutdown’ sounds like ‘bankrupt’ or ‘collapse’ to me, which nobody like to hears. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 21 '11 at 2:45
    
Well, it is supposed to have a negative implication. A "government shut down" is a bad thing. In political discussion it's common to even hear people refer to it as an offensive tactic: "they're threatening to cause a government shutdown" –  jbpjackson Feb 21 '11 at 2:51
    
@Yoichi Oishi: Oishi-san, correct me if I'm wrong, but 開店休業 has the formulaic quality of "open-shop, closed-business", which suggests a familiar (and well tolerated) concept different from the one being discussed here. I would liken our situation more to an office building when the power goes out for a brief period; most people are still moving around inside, but no useful work is getting done. Such a situation cannot go on long without serious consequences. –  Robusto Feb 21 '11 at 3:54
    
Robusto-san.開店休業means business is totally inactive (store is open, but there’s almost no business). Frankly speaking, I’m not so sure whether it fits well to the situation we are discussing here. I understand ‘the government shutdown’ means the status of government (function of executive branches) ‘in the gridlock’ as Alex referred to. Am I right? –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 21 '11 at 4:21
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So no, these are two different things. There may well be "gridlock" throughout the rest of this Congress (until the next one is seated in January 2013), if the two houses decide not to cooperate with each other. It is unlikely, though, that a "government shutdown" will last that long (if it even happens at all); sooner or later one side will give in and a budget will be passed. –  Alex Feb 21 '11 at 16:32

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