The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that the White House and Democrats in Congress have come up with about $20 billion more in spending cuts to present to Republicans. The Democrats are hoping that—combined with the $10 billion in cuts already passed by Congress—Republicans will find the figure alluring enough to bring about a compromise and Washington can “avoid a government shutdown.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that after breakdowns in a closed-door meeting last week, “the threat of a government shutdown… appears to be back on the table.” In fact, the term “government shutdown” is getting plenty of airtime and column-space today as Congress lurches further away from a compromise that would keep the gears of government grinding on.

But few of the reports raising the specter of “government shutdown” have bothered to fully define what it means or what it would look like. Instead, most seem to take it for granted that readers remember the relevant paragraphs of their school civics text books, or that they can still recall the news reports from the nation’s most recent shutdowns: the one in 1995 and the other between December 16, 1995 and January 6, 1996, the longest in history.

With a term as charged as “shutdown” that’s not really enough.

Fortunately, where many major reports have failed to provide a contextualizing sentence or two describing what occurs when the government shuts down, focusing instead on the cut-and-thrust and he-said-she-said of the current negotiation narrative, others have made it their mission to explain clearly and concisely why a government shutdown happens and what actually happens when it does.

Most of these explainers were published in mid- to late-February, after a top aide to Nancy Pelosi told a meeting of Democratic aides that a shutdown of government was more likely than reaching a compromise. But with Congress returning after a recess, and the latest bill to keep the government funded expiring on April 8, they’re worth reading to get a better handle on the current stakes.

The reports rely heavily on a 2004 report from the Congressional Research Service titled, “Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Effects, and Process” and an updated version of it from 2010. They’re a good place to start.

As is The Christian Science Monitor’s report from February 23 which is broken up into questions and answers. The most basic question is the first to be answered: Why does the government have to shut down?

According to the Antideficiency Act of 1870, federal agencies and programs must cease operations if Congress and the president fail to enact funding, except in cases of emergency. The US government shut down six times between fiscal year 1977 and FY 1980, over periods ranging from eight to 17 days, according to the Congressional Research Service. From FY 1981 to FY 1995, there were nine shutdowns lasting as long as three days. Funding for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 extends only through March 4.

The next question: Is the government prepared for a shutdown?

Since 1980, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has required government agencies to submit plans for an “orderly shutdown.” The plans require agency heads to “limit their operations to minimum essential activities” and to reallocate funds to avoid interruption of services as long as possible. “Those plans are obviously updated accordingly, but they’ve been around for a long time,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney at a briefing on Tuesday.

Still, a “shutdown” has scary connotations: visions of Y2K apocalyptica, with planes grounded, the military stalled, and yellowing Social Security checks piled high and undelivered in unmanned offices. In a piece titled “What might a government shutdown look like,” the Post’s Ed O’Keefe conjures up some of this, drawing on the mid-nineties shutdowns still fresh in some people’s memories:

If President Obama and congressional Republicans fail to agree soon on how to fund the final seven months of the fiscal year, some veterans might not receive benefits checks and other Americans would be unable to apply for Social Security. The State Department might not issue new passports, unemployment statistics would not publish as scheduled, museums and national parks would close, and worse—piles of elephant manure might pile up in a National Zoo parking lot because workers can’t ship it away for composting.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.