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.

O’Keefe spoke to members of the Senior Executives Association, which represents government career managers, and one told him how a shutdown affects government staff: “The main impact was a vast amount of work associated with building shutdown plans and determining exactly who was and wasn’t essential, and all the morale issues associated with the fear of impending implementation of those plans. I worked hard to get as many as possible of our then-1,200 or so employees deemed essential as I could, and that helped with morale.” O’Keefe adds: “Even if non-essential workers wanted to work without pay, they could face fines of up to $5,000 or up to two years in prison for violating a federal law that prohibits agencies from accepting volunteer labor.”

In terms of how a “shutdown” affects the general population, NPR is on the job, mining the CRS reports to pull out stats, suggesting that while a shutdown mimicking those from the nineties would be inconvenient, it would not be catastrophic.

• Visas and Passports. Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas reportedly went unprocessed each day; 200,000 U.S. applications for passports reportedly went unprocessed; and U.S. tourist industries and airlines reportedly sustained millions of dollars in losses.

• Health. New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical center; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance; hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites reportedly stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home.

• Law Enforcement and Public Safety. Delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended; cancellation of the recruitment and testing of federal law enforcement officials reportedly occurred, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents; and delinquent child-support cases were delayed.

The same report also notes that the closure of 368 National Park Service sites saw a loss of 7 million visitors, while national museum and monument closures saw a loss of 2 million—the effect on local businesses near these sites was unknown. The Post similarly notes that with all those Washingtonians put out of work for a spell, “stores and restaurants near federal buildings relying on daytime foot traffic would suffer and Metrorail revenues would plummet from lower ridership.”

New word of the day: “ridership.”

It’s important to note, as O’Keefe does in his Post report, that a government shutdown today would not completely mirror shutdowns past. Budget analyst Stan Collander tells O’Keefe: “Instead of checks being mailed, they’re now transferred electronically. But you’ve also got other things that didn’t exist before like Homeland Security. There would have to be some reevaluation from last time. Those are big policy decisions. The next level down is to tell every agency to start preparing for a shutdown. Who gets to come in, who doesn’t? What additional help do you need for security and computer systems?”

New York Daily News reporter Aliyah Shahid is clearest on what won’t be affected: “Services that are deemed ‘essential’ like national security and emergency services. During the last government shutdown, the post office still delivered mail and Social Security checks were eventually sent out.” CNN Money suggests military units overseas won’t be affected, either.

While some Pentagon activities would stop, it would continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property.

In a statement to CNNMoney, a Pentagon spokeswoman said, “We will do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops.”

Meanwhile, Robert Schroeder at Market Watch reminds us that it’s not just shutdown we should be worried about: the less scary-sounding “debt ceiling,” itself a looming fiscal debate to be had, could have consequences even farther reaching than shutting down.

Failure to raise the debt limit would affect a broad range of benefits, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned in a letter to lawmakers in January. Among those payments to be “discontinued, limited, or adversely affected,” Geithner said, would be: Medicare and Social Security benefits, veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits to states and individual and corporate tax refunds.

The results of hitting the debt limit would be different than the shutdown that would result from Congress failing to pass a budget. The budget fight is about appropriations to keep government agencies running. Hitting the debt limit would mean that many agencies couldn’t make payments.

As the budget debate goes on and these terms and others edge their way into more headlines, it’s important that journalists give them the explanations they may require. The above reports have done a good job. And while day-to-day reports on negotiations this week have neither space nor need for these kind sof comprehensive explainers, they could draw from them to contextualize the stakes of the debate taking place.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.