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What is a Government Shutdown in the USA?

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Through his travels and reading, Chris gathers information and writes about historical events and concepts that are often overlooked.

Lincoln Memorial During Federal Government Shutdown


On October 16, 2013, the United States Government ended a 16 day shutdown, the third longest in US history, by passing a temporary spending bill and raising the debt ceiling for the remainder of the year. The United States has now experienced eighteen government shutdowns during its 237 year history. All have been since 1976.]

The Pathway to a Government Shutdown

  1. The fiscal year for the federal government begins on October first. If congress and the president fail to pass regular appropriations acts (a budget) before October first, there is no money for the government to operate.
  2. In the absence of regular appropriations acts, congress and the president can pass interim appropriations or a Continuing Resolution (CR) to pay for the full functioning of the government.
  3. When the congress and the president fail to enact either regular appropriations acts or interim appropriations acts, there is a period when the government is not funded. This is known as a ‘funding gap.’ Interim appropriations and Continuing Resolutions are also known as ‘stopgap funding’ because they end the funding gap.
  4. Until the congress and the president pass regular appropriations acts or interim appropriations acts, a government shut down is required by the Constitution. Article I, Section 9 states that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, served from 1979-1981 during the last half of the Carter Administration.
Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, served from 1979-1981 during the last half of the Carter Administration. | Source

The Antidificiency Act of 1884

The year 1980 was a watershed for the issue of government funding and government shutdowns. Before this, whenever there was a period when the government and the president failed to pass regular appropriations or interim appropriations, the government continued to function fully. They did this even though the federal Constitution and The Antidificiency Act (Adopted in 1884) prohibited unfunded operations of government.

In 1980, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti issued two opinions that interpreted the Antideficiency Act much more strictly. These opinions made it clear that an agency head could avoid violating the Antideficiency Act only by suspending his agency’s operations until the enactment of either regular or interim appropriations. Without these appropriations, exceptions would only be allowed when there is “some reasonable and articulable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

A History of All Federal Government Shutdowns

September 30 to October 11, 1976 (10 days)

September 30 to October 13, 1977 (12 days)

October 31 to November 9, 1977 (8 days)

November 30 to December 9, 1977 (8 days)

September 30 to October 18, 1978 (18 days

September 30 to October 12, 1979 (11 days)

1980-Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti delivered a strict interpretation of the Antideficiency Act

November 20 to November 23, 1981 (2 days)

September 30 to October 2, 1982 (1 day)

December 17 to December 21, 1982 (3 days)

November 10 to November 14, 1983 (3 days)

September 30 to October 3, 1984 (2 days)

October 3 to October 5, 1984 (1 day)

October 16 to October 18, 1986 (1 day)

December 18 to December 20, 1987 (1 day)

October 5 to October 9, 1990 (3 days)

November 13 to November 19, 1995 (5 days)

December 5, 1995 to January 6, 1996 (21 days)

October 1, 2013 to October 16, 2013 (16 days)

Budget Battles

The Longest U.S. Federal Government Shutdown

The longest Government shutdown in history was for a period of 21 days from December 5, 1995 to January 6, 1996. Just days before this shut down began, a shorter, but related shutdown had ended. The two combined were for a total of 28 days.

President Bill Clinton vetoed the budget sent him by the Republican controlled congress. Issues over which the president and congress disagreed were Medicare, education, the environment, and public health in the 1996 federal budget.

Examples of Services Which Have Been Interrupted During a Funding Gap/Government Shutdown:

  • National Parks, museums and monuments. Three hundred sixty eight NPS sites were closed.
  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety-hiring and training of new officers; some services of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
  • Visas and Passports-processing of new applications.
  • Veterans’ Services-Health, finance and travel services.
  • Federal Contracts-Payments to contractors stopped and employees of federal contractors were furloughed without pay.
  • Social Security-With the furlough of federal employees, processing and payment of claims were delayed.
  • congressional employees of the House of Representatives and Senate would not be paid if there is no appropriation to fund legislative branch activities.

Examples of Services not Shut Down During a Funding Gap:

  • national security/foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property.
  • Medical care of inpatients and emergency outpatient care.
  • air traffic control, other transportation safety functions and the protection of transportation property.
  • Protection and surveillance of borders and coastlines.
  • Protection of all properties and equipment owned by the U.S. government.
  • Operation of federal prisons.
  • Law enforcement and criminal investigation
  • Federal emergency and disaster assistance.
  • Preservation of the basic money and banking system of the United States, including borrowing and tax collection.
  • Power production and maintenance of the power system.

Has There Been a Change in Washington Since the More Strict Interpretation of the Antideficiency Act in 1980?

Since 1980, the shutdown of the federal government has been a serious issue, with repercussions reaching deeply into the everyday lives of millions of Americans. This fact seems to have had the desired effect of causing congress and the president to enact either an annual budget by the October first deadline or temporary, stopgap appropriations so that the federal government will continue to be fully funded and to avoid a government shutdown.

The duration of government shutdowns since 1980 have averaged 4 days. Before 1980 they averaged 10.5 days. This is due to the fact that the re-interpretted Act actually has teeth, a message that both congress and the president have understood.

Why Would the Federal Government Shut Down?

In the absence of funding in the form of regular or interim appropriations, the federal government must cease operations because the Constitution and the Antideficiency Act state that it must shut down. It's the Law.


A Brief History of Government Shutdowns

By Doug Mataconis-Outside the Beltway

Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects

By Clinton T. Brass Analyst in Government Organization and Management February 18, 2011


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