No matter how anyone attempts to spin this word, it almost always carries a negative connotation. From being shut-down in an argument, to the cessation of operation in a factory, to the most recent example – the U.S. federal government shutdown – today’s word is, well, not good. Considering the first 2 uses, most people grasp the understanding of the word; however, the use in the most current high-profile example is often confusing.
Before explaining why this is an almost exclusively American issue, let’s look at the word itself.
Shut-down (or shutdown) is a word comprised of the verb shut – from the West Germanic skutjan, meaning, essentially, ‘to discharge or keep out’ – and the adverb down – a shortened form of the Old English ofdune, meaning ‘downwards’. The first and often generalized usage, that of the closing down of a particular person or facility, comes from former New-York monthly magazine’s literary publication The Knickerbocker in 1857, which wrote in a story that: “‘I’ll be just exactly shot if you don’t!’ he added with a patent diabolical shut~down.”
As opposed to a stoppage for a neutral reason, 1911 witnessed the word being used to denote a stoppage as the result of culpability as Sir John F.C. Snell writes in Power House Design that: “The..security against a shut-down arising from the duplicate sets of bus bars.”
Speaking of a shutdown where blame is always a factor, this takes us back to the shutdown in Washington, D.C.. Simply put, a federal shutdown occurs due to an inability within Congress or between Congress and the President to agree on funding for government operations. Typically, shutdowns are a final option meant to bring attention to a particular issue or spending concern, (hopefully) gain concessions from the other side, and tarnish the public image of the opposition.
In the United States, Constitutional separation of powers requires Congress to submit a budget and the President to approve of it. Moreover, the requirement of a supermajority in the Senate (60 of 100) to break the filibuster can make even reaching the budget submission difficult. Still, perhaps without the actual funding issues, this is far from being a uniquely American experience. Though Westminster-style parliamentary systems only require a simple majority to pass laws/budgets and often have penalties for failure – thus making the process easier – there have been notable exceptions, such as: Northern Ireland’s recent (2017) inability to pass a budget (requiring the UK parliament to intervene); Sweden’s minority government (2014) being forced to accept a budget proposed by an opposition party; and, famously, Belgium, which was without a functioning elected government for 589 days, from 2010 to 2011.