On the evening of September 30, fiscal year 2013 drew to a close, and, given the lack of a continuing resolution – to fund the government for another day or month or six months – discretionary funding for the United States Federal government lapsed for the first time in 17 years.

Shutdowns have occurred many times before; there were two during the Clinton years; one during the George H. W. Bush years, eight during the Reagan years, and several during the Ford and Carter years.

A shutdown does not completely hault government operations; roughly 19% of the federal budget is non-defense discretionary – things like food safety, border security, education, arts, and related funding.

The rest of the budget is either defense discretionary (and just before the shutdown a stopgap measure was passed and signed to fund the troops’ needs) and mandatory – items like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which comprise more than 65% of national the budget, which do not need to be reauthorized each year.

Those mandatory items continue even in the face of a shutdown as does most of the Affordable Care Act’s funding, because much of that legislation tied its outlays to mandatory programs.

Nonetheless, a partial government shutdown is still a significant event; it signals dysfunction and weakness to the world that abounds in our politics; affects about 800,000 civilian workers, including one of this article’s co-authors; halts operations like national parks and delays the processing of small business loans, immigration benefits, and a litany of other services.

The shutdown is a major national and international event and the direct impact on American citizens will continue to increase in severity with every passing day that the government remains closed.

The cultural sector is impacted, as well. Institutions that are primarily or wholly funded by the Federal government have shut down or have reduced staffing and operations to bare necessities. Tourists in Washington DC cannot visit the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo, the National Portrait Gallery, and a number of other landmarks. Across the country, more than 400 National Parks have closed and visitors at hotels and campgrounds inside the parks have been asked to leave.

Federal cultural institutions and National Parks draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and their patronage not only contributes financially to the health of these organizations, but indirectly to the private businesses that benefit from cultural tourism, such as restaurants and hotels. The shutdown is a financial setback for these institutions and parks each day, and the severity will increase as the shutdown grows longer.

However, the vast majority of American cultural organizations receives little or no funding from the Federal government and continues to operate normally. The National Endowment for the Arts, the main source of national funding for arts organizations, has closed due to the shutdown. According to the NEA’s website, the last major deadline for grant funding was August 8; surely applications processing and awards for this cycle will be delayed. However, again, these grants are typically such a small percentage of an organization’s annual budget that it should not create significant impact.

The impact of the shutdown on the cultural sector is disappointing and frustrating, but pales in comparison the other implications. Concerns about national security, the stock market and unemployment, child care for more than 1 million low-income families that rely on the national Head Start Program, furloughs for 818,000 Federal employees, and the general frustration toward Congress rank much higher in American hearts and minds right now.

Given the polarization of Washington politics – which, since 2010, the Republicans’ taking control of the House, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s reelection, and a return to divided government again in 2012 – this iteration of a shutdown is full of particular vitriol and mean spiritedness.

Shutting down the government is not a proper or respectable way to handle qualms, issues, concerns, and unpopular facets of the health care law. Congress needs pass a budget to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling to avoid a default. They can then get back to work to address America’s long term fiscal challenges, improving the health care law, and treating Federal employees and American citizens like people, not poker chips.



Questo articolo è stato redatto in collaborazione con Domenic Ionta.


Tara Aesquivel è Executive Chair dell’Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles professional development network