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What is a Government Shutdown in the USA?

Updated on December 18, 2017
cam8510 profile image

Through his travels and reading, Chris gathers information and writes about historical events and concepts which are often overlooked.

Lincoln Memorial During Federal Government Shutdown

Source


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.

Sources

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


Comments

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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      LongTimeMother, thanks for reading and thanks for calling my attention to the fact that I didn't update my hub.

      The 2013 shutdown ended on October 16 when the House and Senate voted in favor of a temporary spending bill and to raise the debt ceiling. President Obama then signed that legislation into law.

      I will come back later to comment on the rest of your comment. Got to go to work now. Thanks again.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 

      5 years ago from Australia

      So how many days did the govt end up shutting down for in 2013? We heard on the tv in Australia that it is likely to happen again early in 2014. I think they said in February.

      I'm surprised that so many Americans still consider the US to be a highly respected superpower and 'the greatest country in the world'. I don't want to sound mean, but to those of us looking on from elsewhere on the planet, the status of the US has definitely slipped in the past decade.

      I enjoyed your hub though. It was very clear and informative. Thank you. :)

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Jan, thanks for the enthusiastic comment. Maybe Woww is about as good as they get. I'm glad you found the article informative.

    • Jan Brianne profile image

      Jan Brianne 

      5 years ago

      Woww... informative hub...

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 

      5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      Cam, that was an awesome comment to Deb. I am sitting here giggling over that one.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Deb, nice to see you. Thanks for visiting. Politicians don't have trouble making up their minds. They have trouble making up everyone else's mind so it agrees with their own.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Eric, get on over to that Tribal land and do your hike where the feds can't get to you. I hope it works out.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Martie, thanks for visiting my hub and for taking the time to comment.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This was very well done, and I never realized that the government representatives couldn't make up their minds so many times.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Well it is official our hiking permits are cancelled even though it is back country where I have never seen a park employee. I guess that is supposed to make us blame the other side - whoever that is, for the closure.

      But there is a stretch where some tribes run the show down to the river. The tribes are not dictated to by congress anymore.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      5 years ago from South Africa

      Excellent explanation! Thank you, cam8510 :)

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Thanks for the tip on the GC Eric. And good news for our military as well.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Keep me posted on the hike. Remember winter permits or restricted. However I have trick for a one day overnight at the river which we may be using this year.

      Word just in, they will be funding payments for our military who must work and serve as "essential" but are not guaranteed pay under normal shutdown. Thank goodness.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Let's hope that in two and a half weeks all of this is behind us. Another hike in Grand Canyon? Fantastic. My time here in Missoula, Montana is about up. When I'm finished, if I have time, I may head down that way. I've never seen GC before and really would like to do an overnight hike into the canyon.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Oops I guess I did not phrase that right. Holy Cow I live in San Diego, without those guys we would not have a city. But I do see it, because here it is so in your face.

      I think it important for people to read this article to get a grasp on the fact the Government really does not shutdown. Just the people are hurt.

      I sure would be bummed in my Grand Canyon Hike gets cancelled in 2.5 weeks.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Eric, I have sensed the hard feelings people have toward federal employees. I tend to separate those folks into two categories. There are elected and appointed federal employees. Then there are others who have been hired and go to work everyday expecting to get their benefits and pay just like you and me. I for one hold no resentment for those non-elected/non-appointed workers. Some may receive handsome pay/benefit packages, but those were the terms at the time they were hired. Would any of the rest of us not expect those terms to be fulfilled if we were in their shoes? No, we would expect to be paid. Among those elected officials are people who receive benefits for life though they may serve one term. Even then, those were the terms of their contract when elected. Rather than resenting anyone, we should probably be working to change the terms. I do understand what you have brought up, and I'm sure many agree with you. But let's step back and look at these people as human beings who are trying to make ends meet like the rest of us.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Cam, this has been gnawing at me. I wonder if "government workers" even realize that there is a great deal of resentment toward them for having that generally guaranteed job and pension and benefits for life. Around here it is nepotism at it's finest and our pensions are always killing our budget. I am afraid folks refuse to speak of the elephant sitting in the corner. After the job crash of the last five years, I think maybe many people do not have compassion for poor Gov't workers missing a paycheck or two like most the rest of us have.

      Just an issue that should not be ignored.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Faith Reaper, thank you for those kind words and for sharing my article. God bless you as well.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Becky, I appreciate your support for this hub. There are always political games being played by both sides when it's time to pass a budget. They just don't get it that there are real people out here that get hurt when they have their little skirmishes. Twenty-one days without a paycheck would be very hard to take.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      5 years ago from southern USA

      Excellent article.

      Up and more and sharing

      God bless, Faith Reaper

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 

      5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      Well researched and informative hub here. My husband is a disabled Vet and worked with ATF before that. We have been affected by every one of these shutdowns. The 21 day one was really fun when we didn't get paid. We still had to pay rent, utilities, and buy food. I borrowed money for food that time. They just reinforce their irresponsibility when they do this.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Thanks Eric. I was hoping it would come across in a balanced way.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Great hub. Incredibly apolitical. A tough assignment for anyone. Thanks much. Personally I think a 21 day shutdown is a wake up call for citizens.

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