Hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed and many AU interns cannot report to work, nor can they even check their government email accounts. It’s clear which government offices are closed and which are open, but the reasons for the closures may not be.
Article I of the Constitution provides some explanation for the government shutdown. Every civics student learns that Congress has the ‘power of the purse.’
“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law,” Article I reads in part.
It seems straightforward. In other words, no government agency can spend money unless Congress gives them the authority to do so by appropriating funds.
Why workers could not just come to work, though, is still unclear. Therefore, the Constitution does not explain the government shutdown.
The explanation lies in the Antideficiency Act of 1884. The Antideficiency Act says executive branch officials are not allowed to take actions that create debt, or financial obligations, for the government.
It states that a government agency cannot “involve the government in any contract for the future payment in excess of such appropriations.”
Federal workers reporting to the office, updating their Twitter accounts or making a few work calls would be a violation of the law. If they perform duties, the federal government must pay them back and is effectively indebted to them.
According to the Antideficiency Act, when someone violates the law, the agency director must report “immediately to the President and Congress all relevant facts and a statement of actions taken.” Administrative and monetary penalties can be implemented.
There are exceptions for “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” That is where the line between essential and nonessential employees is drawn during a shutdown.
The Antideficiency Act gives the legislative branch much more political muscle over the executive branch in situations like these. As demonstrated, one party with a majority in one house of Congress can shut down the government.
Ryan Stanley is a junior in the School of Communication.