A brief history of US government shutdowns

The US federal government shuts down when lawmakers fail to pass funding legislation needed to finance various federal agencies for the upcoming financial year
The American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome at sunset on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (Photo |AP)
The American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome at sunset on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo |AP)

With hours left to spare, the US Congress approved a bill to extend the government funding for a certain period, thus avoiding the threat of a federal government shutdown.

On Saturday night, US President Joe Biden signed a temporary funding bill to keep the federal agencies open for the time being, which is a huge relief for the federal staff and the common people who would have been at the receiving end if the federal government had shut down.

Even though the Biden government managed to avoid a shutdown in the nick of time, there have been times when the US federal government has shut down.

Funding for the federal government is generally done through annual appropriations bills that outline spending for the coming fiscal year. If these bills are not passed by October 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, funding runs out and many parts of the government have to shut down.

If the government goes into shutdown, the federal government agencies have to cut down on their expenses including the salaries of their staff, which usually results in the termination and furloughs of non-essential federal employees.

Shutdowns have an impact on the functioning of government at every level.

However, the idea of the government shutdown is a relatively recent development.

It started as a result of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Since then, the US government has shut down 21 times for various reasons. Of these, 10 were for funding gaps, where the House of Representatives failed to pass funding to finance the federal agencies. This includes the 21-day shutdown of 1995-96 during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the 16-day shutdown in 2013 during the tenure of the Obama administration, and the 35-day long shutdown of 2018-2019, which was also the longest in the history of the US.

The first shutdown owing to a funding gap occurred on May 1, 1980, when Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States. This shutdown lasted only one day and affected only the Federal Trade Commission. Following the shutdown, the lawmakers have decided that in cases when federal agencies do not have enough funds to continue functioning, the affected agency needs to furlough their non-essential staff.

Here are all 10 previous shutdowns due to funding gaps, and the reasons that led to them:

The 1980s saw multiple shutdowns, and most of them were during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

1. November 20-23, 1981

This was the first shutdown in all its sense where the entire federal government went to a standstill. The main reason behind this shutdown was the political and ideological difference between Reagan and Congress. Reagan vetoed a spending bill because it didn't meet the demands asked for.

This triggered the shutdown, which lasted for two days.

As per sources, the US government furloughed 241,000 federal employees during this short time. The shutdown ended quickly as Congress passed a resolution giving them enough time for negotiation.

2. September 30- October 2, 1982

The very next year the Reagan government saw another government shutdown. But this time it was the collective fault of the entire Congress since they missed the deadline to pass the spending bill, even though they had already agreed on the terms for the bill.

New York Times' Martin Tochlin wrote, "Congress missed the deadline tonight for action on a catch-all spending bill needed to finance the Government in the next two and a half months, even though House and Senate conferees adopted a compromise measure resolving differences in the legislation approved by each chamber.

The House and Senate will not act on the measure until Friday. Congressional leaders barred a late-night session because of major social events tonight by both Republicans and Democrats. President Reagan invited all members of Congress to a barbecue at the White House, while Democrats were having a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner."

The shutdown only lasted for a day.

3. September 30- October 3, 1984

During his second time as US President, Ronald Reagan triggered more shutdowns of the US Federal Government. In the year 1984, the US government had two back-to-back funding gaps from September 30 to October 3.

Democrats in Congress pushed for the inclusion of a water projects package and a law reversing a recent Supreme Court decision allowing exceptions from Title IX of the Civil Rights Act for colleges that didn’t get federal funding directly but whose students did. But Reagan rejected the bill.

Nevertheless, Congress managed to avert the shutdown initially by passing a resolution, giving both sides time to negotiate. But they missed their second deadline to pass the spending bill, resulting in a half-day shutdown.

During this brief time, 500,000 federal employees were furloughed. Besides, Congress was forced to include funding for Nicaraguan Contras, a US-backed group trained to fight the Socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, to avoid the shutdown.

4. October 16-18, 1986

Reagan triggered another shutdown that lasted half a day after Democrats pushed for the expansion of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which the president pushed back.

Like in 1984, 500,000 employees were affected by the shutdown.

The climax played out the same way as in 1984, House Democrats gave in to Reagan's demands to avoid another shutdown.

5. October 5-9, 1990

The shutdown in 1990 happened during the administration of George H. W. Bush. One of his main campaign promises was "no new taxes". And that primarily was the reason for the shutdown.

In the funding bill, he not only proposed major tax increases, but pushed for spending cuts in benefit programs, including Medicare programs. He even threatened that he would veto any resolution that wouldn't come up with a plan to reduce the deficit.

On 5 October, under the leadership of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, US lawmakers rebelled against Bush's initial package, resulting in a shutdown. The shutdown lasted until 9 October, when Bush agreed to remove his proposed tax increases and reduce the amount of spending cuts, in return for Congress providing a concession on the amended bill to allow for increasing income tax on the wealthy.

6. November 13–19, 1995  

Since 1995, most of the shutdowns have been longer, unlike the previous ones. Under the Bill Clinton Government, a Federal Government shutdown went on for five days.

The government went to a standstill as Clinton vetoed the continuous resolutions sent by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, including hikes to Medicare premiums, rollbacks of environmental regulations, and a requirement to balance the budget within seven years.

The effect of the government halt led to the majority of departments being closed down and 800,000 federal workers being furloughed. The shutdown lasted for five days.

7. December 15, 1995–January 6, 1996

For a second time during Clinton's administration, the US saw another federal government shutdown, and it lasted for 21 days.

This one also stemmed from the "beef" between Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton.

According to VOX, this resulted in them failing to agree on whether to use economic forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office or the Office of Management and Budget to determine whether the White House’s budget plan would balance.

During this time, 280,000 employees were furloughed.

8. September 30–October 17, 2013

During the Presidency of Barack Obama, the US federal government came to a standstill for 17 days.

The shutdown occurred when Republicans pushed for a spending resolution and demanded to defund the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, which President Barack Obama had signed into law in 2010.

When both Democrats and the Republicans failed to find a common ground, and the deadline to pass funding expired, the government furloughed 800,000 workers.

The shutdown ended weeks later when Obama signed a bill that made minor changes to the ACA but did not include the major defunding the Republicans had wanted.

9. January 19–22, 2018

In 2018, during Donald Trump's Presidency, the US government was shut down for hours.

After the Trump administration decided to end the program, Democrats wanted to force the Trump Administration and Congress to protect beneficiaries of DACA, which barred deportation of unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as kids.

Republicans voted in support of DACA to avoid a shutdown.

10. December 21, 2018–January 25, 2019

The Federal shutdown in 2019 -- 35 days -- was the longest so far in the history of US federal shutdowns. The government came to a standstill because Trump asked for funding to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, which Democrats opposed.

The shutdown led to a furlough of 800,000 federal workers.

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