US government shutdowns: A chronology
President Joe Biden's government is facing a shutdown if the Republican Congress doesn't approve the budget for the coming fiscal year. DW looks at how shutdowns started, when they became partisan and how much they cost.
As midnight approaches on September 30, it's go time for Congress: Approve a budget before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, or shut down the government. Originally, Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution required lawmakers to approve the budget. Honing it further in 1870, the Antideficiency Act targeted agencies that spent money without asking. But deadlines were often missed.
No money, no pay, no work
At the behest of President Jimmy Carter, the US attorney general revisited the Antideficiency Act in 1980 to answer the question: "Without a budget, are government employees required to work?" According to his Attorney General's legal opinion, no money meant no work. Carter's presidency saw only small shutdowns, but the new interpretation of the law turned shutdowns into a negotiating tactic.
Ronald Reagan and the first shutdown
The first real shutdown — more than 240,000 workers furloughed, more than $80 million (€65 million) down the drain — occurred in November 1981. President Ronald Reagan refused to sign a budget without billions in tax cuts. The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House found a solution the next day. This happened seven more times by his last year in 1989.
Bill Clinton and the rise of the partisan shutdown
Budget impasses were largely drama-free until 1995, when President Bill Clinton faced off against Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (pictured left). The Republican-led Congress wanted a balanced budget within seven years, higher Medicare premiums and rollbacks on environment regulations. It took 27 days in total to strike a deal. The cost: at least $1 billion.
A game for Congress, a headache for the agencies
Many departments such as the military, national security and any deemed essential to the protection of life continue working during shutdowns. But agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must cease operations. This results in delays on tax decisions, food inspection and disease research among other problems.
Barack Obama and Congress on Cruz-control
The next major shutdown came in 2013 under President Barack Obama. His Affordable Health Care Act — or Obamacare — faced stark opposition from conservative House Republicans. Led by Senator Ted Cruz, the group pushed for drastic curbs on the health care act in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The 18-day shutdown resulted in the furlough of some 850,000 workers. The cost: $24 billion.
Shutdown for a wall
The longest shutdown in US history so far lasted 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019. Hundreds of federal workers went without paychecks. Despite the disruption, then-President Donald Trump insisted that funding for his Mexico border wall be included in the budget. In fact, Trump had said he was prepared for the impasse to go on for years — before he gave in and reopened government.
Cost of playing politics
The prohibitive cost of shutting down some government operations has not tamed the trend. Washington loses millions not just in revenue, but also in back pay, even though furloughed employees stay at home. So, time lost, work lost — and money lost. According to a 2019 estimate by ratings agency Standard and Poor's, a government shutdown costs the US roughly $6 billion per week.
Shutdowns contributing to distrust?
The biggest loser is not the economy, or the party that makes the most concessions, it's the government itself. According to a Gallup poll in the aftermath of the 2013 shutdown, public dissatisfaction with the government in general rose to 33%. The previous all-time high regarding political dysfunction was 26% during the Watergate scandal.