Dictionary of the American shutdown

Elizabeth Smith

The shutdown is the blocking of administrative activities in the United States. It is, essentially, a stalemate in budget allocation, often the result of political conflicts between Democrats and Republicans.

But when does it occur? And what are the terms used to describe it?

What does shutdown mean?

The shutdown (literally “arrest”) is the blocking of activities provided for by federal regulations when an agreement on the financial law is not reached.

This is a maneuver that “puts state activities into hibernation”, with a lockout that stops a significant part of departments, companies and – consequently – public employees (who are not paid). In most cases it lasts a few days, but in history there are cases of much longer shutdowns.

The shutdown in history

Shutdowns are not uncommon. From the 1970s to today, it has occurred approximately twenty times in US history. As many as eight under the two terms of Reagan’s presidency, although always of shorter duration.

The most famous, however, is probably that of the Carter presidency, remembered as the “abortion shutdown”: three lockouts, between September and December 1977. The stalemate was due to the Republican desire to prohibit the use of Medicaid resources (health insurance for children poorer) to pay for abortions.

Clinton and Bush Sr. also had their administrative blockades. Obama did it in 2013, when Republicans tried to stop Obamacare.

However, the record for duration belongs to Donald Trump. The tension on the “dreamers” had led to an initial blockade, which however lasted only three days.

Much more significant was the shutdown that took place between 22 December 2018 and 25 January 2019: 35 days of stalemate due to the allocation of resources for the construction of the wall on the border with Mexico.

What is meant by slimdown?

When the block is milder and very partial, we speak of slimdown, that is, “slimming” of the public machine. And it is, in reality, the eventuality that occurs most often. It is a term of rather recent use, especially in journalism, which aims to underline that the stalemate is not total.

A shutdown can in fact be more or less severe and even last very short. During Reagan’s presidency, for example, most blockages were resolved within three days.

Consequences of the shutdown: the furlough

It is one of the consequences of the shutdown; “furlough” refers to the lockout that forces public employees not to work and – consequently – not to receive their salary.

In the long shutdown of Trump’s presidency, it is estimated that around 800 thousand workers were affected.

The Blink first phenomenon

Literally it can be translated as “who blinks first”. It would be an “arm wrestling” challenge between Democrats and Republicans.

The expression is often used during shutdowns because the stalemate is due to the lack of an agreement between the two parties.

The blocking of government activities is not beneficial to anyone, but it becomes part of the stakes. Whoever “blinks first” loses. That is, someone who gives in and opens up to a negotiation with the opponent.

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