What is the history of government shutdowns in the United States
This history of government shutdowns in the United States is relatively recent. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, government shutdowns did not exist, but since 1980 the trend of government shutdowns has not only emerged but has increasingly been evident as part of US politics. Why this has happened and its history is discussed below.
Government Shutdowns in the 1980s
The first recorded shutdown occurred on May 1, 1980 during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The shutdown lasted one day and only affected the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The critical event that not only created this shutdown but allowed others to emerge later was Benjamin Civiletti's decision, who was the US Attorney General, to interpret that the Antideficiency Act of 1884 indicated that if an agency of the government does not have sufficient funds to continue its required function then that part would need to furlough its workers. Initially, it was interpreted that agencies of the US government could continue working without sufficient funds and that workers could even be paid until the appropriations could be obtained. Thus, a dispute over the appropriation and oversight of the FTC on the economy in Congress forced the agency to shutdown for one day. Although brief, this produced an important precedent.
Between 1981-1986, three government shutdowns occurred, none of which lasted more than 24 hours. These shutdowns resulted due to Regan's vetos of different appropriations sent to him by Congress. In all of these cases, Ronald Regan had wanted to make more significant cuts to the appropriations of different departments and agencies. The furloughs were shortlived but affected now hundreds of thousands of federal employees. This was also significant as now appropriations began to increasingly be seen as part of partisan tactics and ideologies. Economists had estimated even these short shutdowns affected the economy in the 10s of millions due to their disruption on the wider economy.
Government Shutdowns in the 1990s
The first shutdown of the 1990s occurred during George H Bush's term from October 6-8th 1990. This shutdown was very minor in that it only affected a few thousand employees, with mostly national park and museum employees affected, with a cost to the economy between $2-3 million. In large part, this was because the shutdown occurred over a holiday period. The main dispute was Bush's desire to increase taxes and make major reductions to Medicare. Eventually, he and Congress compromised by not making large tax increases, with only wealthy individuals seeing their taxes rise, and reductions to government spending proposed were reduced.
The most significant period of government shutdowns in the 1990s occurred between 1995-96, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. The first shutdown lasted from November 14-19 1995. At the time, this was the longest shutdown and led to a furloughing of more than 800,000 government employees. Congress under Newt Gingrich's leadership wanted to make large cuts to the federal budget. The second shutdown was due to unresolved disputes in the federal budget between Gingrich and Clinton, where this second shutdown lasted from December 16-January 9 1996. This second shutdown was the most significant in terms of its length and arguably politicized shutdowns more than prior shutdowns. For Gingrich, his comments and actions reflected poorly for him in the polls, while for Clinton his popularity increased after this period and arguably helped him get reelected in 1996. The second shutdown in 1995 led to the furloughing of about 284,000 employees.
One result of the 1995-96 shutdown was that shutdowns began to be seen as politically costly for the major parties. This effectively meant that both parties tried to avoid shutdowns in the subsequent years after 1996 and this helped to avoid any shutdowns throughout the 2000s and the period of George W. Bush's presidency.