Decoding the jargon of a government shutdown — and debt ceiling

October 2, 2013

A short guide to some of Washington speak.

Debt limit – The debt limit is the somewhat arbitrary amount of money – currently $16.699 trillion – that the United States Treasury Department is authorized by Congress to borrow from outside sources. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said the country will reach the limit on Oct. 17. At that point, the government would need to rely solely on about $30 billion in cash, plus some tax payments to cover its many millions of bills. If the government became unable to pay the interest on its existing loans — if it defaulted—economists agree almost unanimously that the effects would be devastating for the world economy.

Lapse in appropriations – To most people, this would be called poor financial planning. To the federal government, it’s the cause of a partial shutdown that’s upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Either by way of an annual budget or a continuing resolution, Congress funds every federal department, office and program. Congress appropriates federal tax dollars. During a lapse in appropriations, the departments, offices and programs don’t receive funding and are forced to choose which employees it absolutely needs to function (see: Essential).

The latest funding measure, a CR, was signed by President Obama in March and expired on Sept. 30. Without a new one, the government will not re-open.

Conference committee: House Republicans have asked for a conference committee with the Senate. In such a committee, members of both parties from both houses could hash out their differences and, in theory, agree on a way to end the shutdown.

Continuing resolution: Under a perfectly functioning system, lawmakers would fund the government each year by drafting and passing an annual budget for the president to sign. But the Senate hasn’t passed a budget since 2009, so the government has been funded in short spurts using what are called continuing resolutions, or CRs.

The Vitter amendment: Many Republicans want any CR they pass to include what’s known as the Vitter amendment.

Vitter is Sen. David Vitter, a conservative Republican from Louisiana. His amendment would end the employer health-care contribution for members of Congress and their staff members, leaving them to shoulder the full cost of their health-insurance coverage.

“Essential” and “excepted” employees: Sixty-three percent of the federal workforce is still working, and by law they must be paid — eventually. They just don’t have to be paid on time. These employees are defined by the Office of Management and Budget as “excepted” from furloughs. The informal usage for this status has been “essential,” but ultimately, someone wised up and figured out that the term was insulting.

“Non-excepted” and “nonessential” employees: These are the 37 percent of the federal workforce who have been furloughed thus far, and for whom it will take an act of Congress to get paid for their time out of the office.

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