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A Brief History Of Federal Government Shutdowns

NBC’s Pete Williams has a post today listing the government shutdowns of the past, unfortunately the list is largely unreadable thanks to two huge floating ads. So, here it is (all starting times are midnight on the date given):

  • 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)
  • 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)

One of the interesting things to note is that, after 1980, the length of shutdowns was usually very short, 2 or 3 days at most. The exceptions to that are the  disastrous shutdowns  at the end of 1995. The main reason for that is that there was a change in the way a law called the Anti-Deficiency Act was interpreted in this situations (PDF of Congressional Research Service report):

For years, many federal agencies continued to operate during a funding gap, while “minimizing  all nonessential operations and obligations, believing that Congress did not intend that agencies  close down” while waiting for the enactment of annual appropriations acts or continuing resolutions.11 In 1980 and 1981, however, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti issued two  opinions that more strictly interpreted the Antideficiency Act in the context of a funding gap, along with its exceptions.12 The opinions stated that, with some exceptions, the head of an agency could avoid violating the Antideficiency Act only by suspending the agency’s operations until the enactment of an appropriation. In the absence of appropriations, exceptions would be allowed only 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.”

Basically then, before Civiletti’s opinion, government shutdowns were relatively painless affairs because large numbers of government offices continued to operate. This means there was less pressure on Congress to actually resolve the dispute.   Once it became clear that shutting the government down would have real consequences, though, Congress and the White House usually had an incentive to resolve their disputes quickly. The one exception since 1980 involved two competing and contentious personalities.

The lesson for 2011 from all this ? Two things, I think.

First, if there is a shutdown it’s likely to be a short one. Unlike 1995/96, there don’t seem to be the same type of personality conflicts between Boehner/Cantor and Reid/Obama that there were between Gingrich and Clinton. I don’t think Boehner really wants a shutdown, but he also has to proceed in these negotiations in a way that isn’t going to totally piss off the base. If that means that it will take a one or two day shutdown followed by a deal, then that may be what it will take.

Second, if you want to make government shutdowns less likely (although they are clearly less common now than they were in the 70′s and 80s), then the best way to do that is to make a shutdown more painful by restricting even further the government functions that could operation during a shutdown. If Congress and the White House know that they will cause real pain if they don’t resolve their disputes, then history suggests that they will make the deal rather than risking the pain and the inevitable political fallout.

 

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. SJ Reidhead says:

    A brief history: Republicans always lose, end of story. It doesn’t matter how badly the Dems are acting, the press will spin it their way.

    SJR
    The Pink Flamingo

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 35 Thumb down 20

  2. reid says:

    “The Liberal Media” — the biggest myth there is.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 25 Thumb down 38

  3. ponce says:

    “Republicans always lose,”

    I think this shutdown is a win-win for Boner.

    If America blames Obama, he wins.

    If America blames the Republicans, it will be the end of the fringe right freaks of the Tea Party who have plagued his brief reign.

    Either way, Boner comes out ahead.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 37

  4. Axel Edgren says:

    A brief history: Republicans always lose, end of story. It doesn’t matter how badly the Dems are acting, the press will spin it their way.

    A brief history: Democrats have went more than halfway to meet the teepers billions-wise, but said scum wants to destroy Planned Parenthood and EPA as well so there might be a shutdown.

    So I think you need to illuminate yourself. I suggest launching yourself into the sun.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 45

  5. ponce says:

    Which is odd because the Tea Party people have stridently claimed they are just fiscal conservatives, not social cons.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 8

  6. RonR says:

    For gen. info to liberals; TEA Party stands for “taxed enough already”. By definition they ARE fiscal conservatives. Liberals seem to believe that money has some other source than taxes, this is the key to the current dispute. I do, however, believe that Sen Boehner should be asking for bigger cuts.

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  7. Jesse says:

    “Liberals seem to believe that money has some other source than taxes”

    Yes, and conservatives think that their profits should come on the backs of the people who actually work for a living. Please, let’s call a spade a spade. The republican constituency consists of those who can afford to be taxed at a higher rate but never need to worry about it as long as their political puppets are in control of the government. Take away the Bush tax cuts and the budget deficit could be paid down with an additional $680 BILLION in currently sheltered tax breaks over the next 10 years (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/opinion/23krugman.html?_r=1)

    Enough of the corrupt political process. And CERTAINLY enough of protecting the wealthy from doing their fair share

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 43

  8. Farnham says:

    … and the extreme fiscal conservatives seem to believe that roads, education, and national defense can be paid for without taxes.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 31

  9. D.Vader says:

    @SJ Reidhead “A brief history: Republicans always lose, end of story.”

    Like they did in November?

    No the issue isn’t how the press will spin it, we all know the press will turn the republicans into boogiemen. The point is do these freshmen have the balls to do the job the promised. So far I am not convinced, this $38 billion in cuts is LAUGHABLE. It may pay for the national debts interest for a few days.

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  10. D.Vader says:

    @Farnham “… and the extreme fiscal conservatives seem to believe that roads, education, and national defense can be paid for without taxes.”

    Seriously? :P Name me ONE extreme fiscal conservative that is active in his political career that thinks that?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 3

  11. D.Vader says:

    @Axel “A brief history: Democrats have went more than halfway to meet the teepers billions-wise, but said scum wants to destroy Planned Parenthood and EPA as well so there might be a shutdown.”

    You know with all the support for Planned Parenthood out there, why can’t they get private funding?

    The EPA is overly powerful as it is. I wouldn’t shed a tar for it’s loss. I don’t vote for the EPA so why do they get a say in my life?

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  12. D.Vader says:

    @Jesse

    You certainly are blinded son. Has anyone even figured out where this Stimulus cash went? I know some of it went to some lawyers that helped Hilary with her campaign.

    While you cry, piss and moan about tax cuts because you have no respect for the producers of this country at least what Bush did was legal and above the board. So far much of this stimulus money seems to have disappeared into a black hole of political paybacks (yes by your pure as the driven snow Obama).

    So your solution is the same tried solution…

    Lets not regulate our politicians spending, they should just keep blowing money like they always have. Lets soak the rich (aka producers and job creators). So we can pay for some more handouts for those who don’t produce.

    Liberals…. grow up and get your head out of your collective asses. The government is not an extension of Mommy and Daddy. If you have pet programs you want funded, by all means use the power of your freedom to establish a foundation. The government is not some nanny state intended to save everyone from all their ills. Considering the amount of red tape the Gov’t is a piss poor means to distribute social aid and the fact that politics gets mixed into that is a sham. Just more BS for democrats to whine about and pull heart stings.

    Cry me a river and change your diaper.

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