What Are U.S. Government Shutdowns?

In the United States, a government shutdown happens when Congress can't agree upon an annual federal budget — how to allocate funds for federal services. With a shutdown, the federal government provides funding only to essential government services. These essential functions include agencies related to national security, public safety, air traffic control, programs written into permanent law (such as Social Security), or agencies with independent sources of funding (such as the U.S. Postal Service).

Because of a lack of congressionally authorized funding, an extensive list of non-essential services of the government, such as the National Park Service and certain parts of the Department of Labor and the IRS, is forced to halt. Each agency affected by a government shutdown has contingency plans on how it will suspend their services. You can check the Office of Management and Budget site for current plans for those agencies.

Since 1976, when Congress began its revised budgeting process, the government has shut down a total of 18 times due to squabbles over the federal budget, some only lasting a single day, while others have gone on for weeks:

  • September 30 to October 11, 1976: Citing out-of-control spending, President Gerald Ford vetoed a funding bill for the Department of Labor and Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), which caused a major budget conflict and a partial government shutdown.

  • September 30 to October 13, 1977: The House of Representatives wanted to uphold the ban on using Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions, while the Senate wanted to loosen the ban to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or when the mother's health was in danger. But because the issue was tied to funding for the departments of Labor and HEW, Congress failed to reach an agreement which created a funding gap and led to a partial government shutdown.

    A temporary agreement was made to extend funding through October 31 to allow Congress more time to resolve the issue.

  • October 31 to November 9, 1977: Congress failed to resolve the Medicaid abortion issue, resulting in a second standoff. To allow Congress more time to resolve the dispute, President Jimmy Carter signed a second temporary funding agreement.

  • November 30 to December 9, 1977: The second temporary measure meant to allow more time for negotiation on the Medicaid abortion issue didn't last long enough. The House rejected a Senate proposal that would have allowed Medicaid to pay for abortions by victims of statutory rape.

    A deal was eventually brokered in which the exception to allow Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases where a mother's life is endangered was widened to include abortions resulting from rape, incest, or which are necessary to protect the mother's health.

  • September 30 to October 18, 1978: Deeming them wasteful, President Carter vetoed a defense bill, which included funding for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and a public works appropriations bill. Also, spending for the Department of HEW was delayed over a dispute concerning Medicaid funding for abortion.

  • September 30 to October 12, 1979: The Senate opposed the House's push for a 5.5 percent pay increase for congress members and senior civil servants. Additionally, there were disagreements between the House and the Senate regarding federal abortion spending.

  • November 20 to November 23, 1981: President Ronald Reagan promised to veto any spending bill that failed to include at least half of his proposed $8.4 billion in domestic budget cuts. A compromised bill between the House and Senate fell $2 billion short of the cuts Reagan wanted, so he vetoed the bill and shut down the government.

  • September 30 to October 2, 1982: This shutdown happened because the spending bills weren't passed in time, so parts of the government were forced to shut down.

  • December 17 to December 21, 1982: The House and Senate wanted to fund a public works bill to create jobs, but President Reagan vowed to veto any spending bill that included jobs money. Additionally, the House opposed funding the MX missile program which was a major defense priority of the president.

  • November 10 to November 14, 1983: The House increased education funding by about $1 billion, but cut foreign aid spending, which caused a dispute with President Reagan.

  • September 30 to October 3, 1984: The passage of the budget was complicated by the House wanting to link it to a crime-fighting package, which Reagan wanted, and a water projects package, which Reagan opposed. At the same time, the Senate tied the budget to a civil rights measure that Reagan opposed. A deal wasn't struck, and a three-day spending extension was passed instead.

  • October 3 to October 5, 1984: The previous three-day spending extension expired, causing a shutdown.

  • October 16 to October 18, 1986: This shutdown was the result of several disagreements between President Reagan and the Democratic controlled House.

  • December 18 to December 20, 1987: President Reagan and the Democratic controlled Congress couldn't agree on funding for the Nicaraguan Contras in time to avoid a government shutdown.

  • October 5 to October 9, 1990: President George H.W. Bush promised to veto any continuing resolution that wasn't paired with a deficit reduction plan. The House failed to override the president's veto, resulting in no budget and a government shutdown.

  • November 13 to November 19, 1995: The Republican controlled Congress and President Bill Clinton sparred over funding for Medicare, environmental regulations, and a timeline to balance the budget, among other stipulations.

  • December 5, 1995 to January 6, 1996: The longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the main issue here was the budget deficit. Republican leaders demanded that the White House propose a seven-year budget plan using the Congressional Budget Office economic forecasts, rather than the Office of Management and Budget numbers, which were more optimistic.

  • October 1, 2013 (as of this writing, ongoing): Due to disagreements over funding for and implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the government didn't pass a funding bill.

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