A history of Government Shutdowns


The government shutdown is possibly one of the most peculiar institutions in U.S. politics. Under the Constitution, Congress is authorized with the “power of the purse,” meaning that elected officials have the ultimate say in how taxpayer money is allocated for government spending.

The President can also exercise authority over the budget by vetoing a submitted bill. Today, 12 Congressional subcommittees review and adapt budget proposals for each government agency.

These budgets are compiled into two single bills, one from the House and one from the Senate. The chambers must then merge their bills into one budget to send before the President. Once signed, the budget becomes law and government spending is set for the remainder of the fiscal year. Ideally, this process should be completed before September 30th.

Shutdowns occur when either Congress or the Executive branch fails to pass a legislative budget.

Without funding, government agencies must halt operations, and thousands of contractors dependent on government money go without pay. While a shutdown can be prevented with temporary funding authorizations, there have been several cases in U.S. history where Congress failed to do so. 

Between 2019 and 1976, the government shutdown 21 times. Exceedingly rare before the 1970s, government shutdowns have become more severe and more frequent in the past decade. This is partially due to more stringent enforcement of the Antideficiency Act since the 1980s and growing disparity between political parties.

Although historians are divided on whether defaults in 1790 and 1933 count as official shutdowns, the first modern day shutdown occurred during the second year of Gerald Ford’s presidency. President Ford vetoed funding for agencies focused on health, labor, and welfare.

As Congress challenged this veto, other funding gaps remained unfilled. During the 10-day stand-off, agencies could operate as usual on the expectation that the government would pay expenses once a budget was passed. This approach was followed during the next five shutdowns under the Carter Administration.

Between 1977 and 1979, the government shutdown five times; three of these occurred in 1977 alone. Several of these shutdowns were related to the divisive issue of funding certain medical procedures with government money. Interestingly, the divide originated between the chambers of Congress, at the time both controlled by Democrats.

The issue re-emerged twice more before the Senate’s proposal moved forward. The three shutdowns shuttered the government for a total of 34 days. In 1978, the fourth shutdown in less than a year was brought on by President Carter’s veto. The budget is passed within 18 days. However, the still contentious issue of government funded medical procedures caused a fifth shutdown in 1979 and lasted 11 days.

In President Reagan’s first term, the Attorney General prohibited the use of unappropriated funds. From then on, shutdowns transformed from a purely political issue to an event with the ability to affect the general public. However, as the majority of shutdowns in the 1980s lasted less than three days, the true ramifications of this change would not be seen until the mid-1990.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton clashed with the Republican-majority Congress on a spending bill projected to run a $115 billion deficit. For three weeks, more than a quarter of a million Federal workers were left in limbo. While the spending bill was ultimately passed, for years, the shutdown remained the longest in history.

Under President Obama, disagreement over the Affordable Care Act led to a 16-day shutdown in 2013. This shutdown had far reaching consequences, especially on research and scientific agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Without funding, the agency's laboratories could not sustain their staff, cover rent to own lab equipment leases, or maintain and care for thousands of genetically engineered mice vital to research. The funding lapse eliminated years of progress within a few weeks.

The longest shutdown in U.S. history also happens to be the most recent. The battle between President Donald Trump and the Democratic-majority Senate  resulted in a 35-day partial government shutdown.

President Trump refused to pass a bill that did not include funding to build a wall along the Southern border. He rejected the Senate’s counteroffer. The shutdown overlapped with mid-term elections and the swearing in of a new Congress.

As discussions between Congress and the President slowed, the country came to an abrupt halt. More than 800,000 government employees and contractors were furloughed, many of whom without pay.

The lengthy shutdown impacted operations in agriculture, aviation, research, and the judicial system. Economists estimated that the latest shutdown cost the U.S. government more than $3 billion dollars