History of Government Shutdowns: Everything You Need To Know

Congress has failed to pass an appropriations bill or continuing resolution before the midnight deadline, so the government has officially shut down. Nonessential federal workers have been furloughed, the EPA and IRS have sent home 90% of their workforce, and, worst of all, the National Zoo’s Panda Cam has been turned off. This is the eighteenth government shutdown since the federal government changed to its current budgeting process. Not all shutdowns are created equal however, some lasted only a day while the longest dragged on for 21 days. Here’s a history of government shutdown.

1. Ford's Shutdown

This shutdown, which occurred in 1976 because Ford vetoed funding for the Departments of Labor and Health, Education, and Welfare, is mainly notable because it was the first government shutdown. The shutdown lasted 10 days, but unlike modern shutdowns, only part of the government went unfunded. Through complicated government accounting, money was shifted around to fund most government functions, and most Americans hardly noticed any disruptions in services. Democrats in Congress mustered enough votes to override Ford’s veto, and fund the departments to their desired levels.

2. Carter's Abortion Shutdowns

Under Jimmy Carter, the government shutdown five times. Once it was because disputes about military funding, but four times it was because of the ever-contentious issue of abortion. Social conservatives, led by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, opposed any federal funding of abortions. The shutdowns ranged from 8 to 11 days, and a series of compromises were reached where federal funding would pay for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when it was necessary to save the life of the mother. 

3. Reagan's Shutdowns

Nowadays, President Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill are remembered as part of an era when Washington functioned effectively. At the time however, the frequent government shutdowns seemed to represent a new era of bare knuckled politics. During the Reagan years, the government shut down seven times. The reasons for shutdown were varied: disputes over missile defense, disagreements over water projects, foreign aid to right-wing governments in South America, and welfare expansion. But these were the first to cause major disruption in government services. Because of an altered interpretation of federal law, the  government needed to stop allocating funds when the shutdown began, which meant that citizens saw a disruption in government services. Thankfully, the shutdowns never lasted longer than three days, which limited how much pain they caused the average American. Paradoxically, the lack of severity from the shutdowns made them more common, as political actors saw little consequence in not passing spending bills before the deadlines. 

4. George H.W. Bush's Shutdown

George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency with deficits at a then-record high of $155.2 Billion, 53.1% of GDP. These high deficits, unlike the ones we have today, caused interests rate to rise, harming any American who applied for a loan. President Bush refused to sign any budget that didn’t contain a deficit reduction plan, and a three day shutdown ensued. After negotiations between the White House and Democratic Congressmen, an agreement was reached and the shutdown ended.

5. Clinton's Shutdown

Technically, the government shutdown twice under President Clinton. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, emboldened by public opinion polls showing most American supported his positions, aggressively fought for deficit reduction and spending cuts. The first shutdown ended after five days, when a short-term deal was reached to fund government at 75% of existing budget levels. When negotiations proved fruitless, the government shutdown again, this time for 21 days. This shutdown was a resounding defeat for Republicans, who essentially gave up at the end and agreed to give President Clinton the budget he wanted. While Presidents Reagan and Bush tried to downplay the seriousness of a government shutdown, President Clinton recognized it for a political opportunity and hyped the shutdown for all it was worth. The Republicans defeat in the shutdown marked the beginning of the end for the conservative renaissance that began after Clinton’s failed attempt at health care reform. The political fallout caused oppositions parties to avoid a shutdown, at least until now.

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Brian Jencunas

Brian Jencunas is a rising senior studying political science at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. He is a proud New England Patriots fan, active in Republican politics in Massachusetts and enjoys skiing.

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