With the clock ticking down to an April 8 deadline and President Barack Obama and congressional leaders unable to resolve disputes over abortion funding and changes to the Clean Air Act, it appears more and more likely that the U.S. federal government is headed for a shutdown. If the shutdown were to continue through Monday, hundreds of thousands of federal workers deemed nonessential would be furloughed. Essential services, such as national defense, would continue, but soldiers would likely not be paid. Other important services such as benefits for veterans and clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health would also probably be suspended. Do other countries ever have to deal with this?
No. Other countries may have coups, revolutions, and collapses, but a government so deadlocked it simply ceases to function seems to be an exclusively American phenomenon. Several features of the U.S. political system -- a strong executive branch with veto power, the Senate filibuster -- make the sort of deadlock we're seeing now more likely. In a parliamentary system, used by the vast majority of democracies in Europe and Asia, the budget process is similar on paper: The prime minister prepares a "government budget" and submits it to parliament for a vote. But if parliament rejects that budget, that's generally considered a sign that the government no longer has the confidence of parliament and has to resign.
This is exactly what happened in Portugal last month, when Prime Minister Jose Socrates stepped down following the rejection of a new budget featuring harsh austerity measures. The country is currently under the leadership of a caretaker government, until new elections can be held and a new government is formed -- which will presumably try to pass its own pared-down budget. However, just because a country with a parliamentary system is "without a government" doesn't mean that government services stop. Thanks to robust and apolitical civil services, most governments can keep operating no matter who's in power. Belgium hasn't had a government since June 2010, but, for the most part, the trains still run on time, the trash gets picked up, and budgets are even passed.
U.S.-style shutdowns are theoretically possibly in a parliamentary system if a budget is rejected and the government doesn't step down -- but they never actually occur. There were fears not long ago that if Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government proved unable to pass a budget by the start of the 2011 fiscal year in April, payments to civil servants and some government administrative services could be suspended. But the crisis was eventually averted when the budget passed in the wake of last month's deadly earthquake. Battles over a series of related spending bills are still pending.