A look at past US government shutdowns and why history keeps repeating itself

The US Capitol Building seen behind an intersection at sunset in Washington, DC, on Jan 11, 2019.
The US Capitol Building seen behind an intersection at sunset in Washington, DC, on Jan 11, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - At midnight on Saturday (Jan 12), the US government shutdown under President Donald Trump entered its 22nd day, which makes it the longest gap in American government funding ever.

That beats the previous record, under President Bill Clinton in 1995, of 21 days.

In total, there have been 21 gaps in government funding since 1976, though the level of shutdown has varied. The current federal shutdown is a partial one, as many agencies were already funded through this fiscal year, which ends in September.

The roots of today's dysfunction date back to some critical decisions starting in the 1970s. Here's a look at why the American government has lurched into crisis over the budget so often since then:

Before the 1970s, the federal government would in some cases spend money without prior congressional approval, said Mr Jim Broussard, the director of the Centre for Political History at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.

A 1974 law reorganised the budgeting process, shifting power from the executive branch to Congress. Tense disagreements quickly emerged.

In 1977, the House of Representatives and the Senate fought over whether Medicaid should be used to pay for abortions. That led to three separate instances in which the government could not provide funding for the Departments of Labour and Health, Education and Welfare. The shutdowns added up to a total of 28 days that year.

Another gap in funding the following year, when President Jimmy Carter took issue with a costly public works Bill and defence spending, lasted 17 days.

Two legal opinions issued by the United States attorney general, Mr Benjamin R. Civiletti, in 1980 and 1981, made shutdowns much more severe.

Until that point, most agencies could continue to operate even if funding Bills had not been passed, with the understanding that money would eventually be approved.

But Mr Civiletti argued that it was illegal for the government to spend money without congressional appropriations. The few exceptions included work by federal employees to protect life and property, he wrote.


That, in turn, prompted an increased frequency of small shutdowns as politicians struggled with deadlines, said political science professor Roy T. Meyers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has written about the history of shutdowns.

In November 1981, President Ronald Reagan, in a fight with Congress over US$8.5 billion in budget cuts he wanted, ordered the furlough of 241,000 government employees. It was the first time a shutdown of that size was ordered.

A congressional subcommittee estimated that the two-day shutdown cost taxpayers between US$80 million and US$90 million, including administrative costs, such as figuring out who could and could not work and paying workers who did not work.

Shutdowns that included furloughs in 1984, 1986 and 1990 cost taxpayers at least US$128 million, according to government estimates.

The longest previous shutdown came in 1995. At issue was a long-term budget backed by Republicans, who won control of both the House and the Senate halfway through Mr Clinton's first term.

Their plan limited spending for Medicare and turned Medicaid and most other welfare programmes over to the states. House Republicans, in particular, were keen on using a shutdown to get Mr Clinton to sign their Bill.

A five-day shutdown in November was followed by the record-breaker - 21 days - starting in mid-December. That conflagration helped pave the way for the 2013 shutdown over President Barack Obama's health care law.

The 2013 shutdown lasted for 16 days and ended amid dire warnings from the Treasury Department that it was about to run out of money. Having failed in their bid to defund Obamacare, Republicans leaders eventually worked with their Democratic counterparts on a plan to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

"We've got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis," Mr Obama said at the time.