So What Else is New?: A Brief Review of Federal Government Shutdowns

Notwithstanding last week’s statement by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell vowing that there will be no government shutdown this fall, the signs seem to point otherwise. Apart from big-ticket fiscal issues to be resolved— none of the government’s 12 annual spending bills have been enacted and the debt ceiling will have to be raised later this year—there are some hot-button ideological issues to be addressed involving Planned Parenthood and confederate flags.

So like it or not- and 81 percent of Americans opposed the most recent government shutdown—it may happen again. Will life as we know it end? Hardly. Since the modern congressional budgeting process took effect back in 1976, the federal government has experienced funding gaps on 18 separate occasions. Following is a brief look-back at the political circumstances around them and what happened as a consequence.

Under President Gerald Ford, only one funding gap occurred affecting the Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). The funding gap lasted 10 days when President Ford vetoed the Labor-HEW appropriations bill, citing out of control spending. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, there were five partial shutdowns that affected only the Departments of Labor, HHS and Education. Those lasted 8 to 18 days and the primary issue was funding for abortion.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there were funding gaps with technical shutdowns lasting less than 48 hours or over weekends, rendering them to be of negligible effect. Each shutdown was for a different reason, but mainly occurred due to proposed cuts to domestic programs and increased spending for defense. A funding gap during the George H.W. Bush administration also caused a weekend shutdown when Bush wanted to pair spending bills with a deficit reduction package. But that crisis was resolved late the following Monday.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, there were two full government shutdowns – one in 1995 that lasted five days and one in 1996, lasting 21 days. Both shutdowns led to massive furloughs and significant government disruption. The primary issue was the budget deficit. Also in the 1990s, the Republicans shut down the government to force cuts in Medicare. In 2013, the GOP shut down the government in an unsuccessful attempt to force repeal of the Affordable Care Act. This shutdown ran from October 1 to October 16.

Recent history has shown that shutting off Federal spending, in and of itself, does little to advance national interests in either the short- or long-run. Let’s just hope that cooler heads prevail in the months ahead.

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