Here is every previous government shutdown, why they happened and how they ended

September 25, 2013

Since the modern congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976, there have been a total of seventeen separate government shutdowns (or "spending gaps" in Hill jargon). Given that we appear to be headed for another one imminently, let's look back at those experiences, the political circumstances around them and what happened as a consequence. Most of the specifics were drawn from The Washington Post print archives, which you can access for a modest sum here.

It's also important to note that not all shutdowns are created equal. Before some 1980 and 1981 opinions issued by then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, a failure to fund some part of the government didn't necessarily mean that that part of government would stop functioning. Civiletti's opinions interpreted the Antideficiency Act, a law passed in 1884, as meaning that a failure to pass new spending bills required government functioning to shut down in whole or in part. So the "shutdowns" listed below that happened between 1976 tand 1979 did not always entail an actual stop to government functioning; they were often simply funding gaps that didn't have any real-world effect.


David Mathews, President Gerald R. Ford's secretary of health, education and welfare. (Kettering Foundation)

Shutdown #1: HEWdown

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct. 11, 1976
How long did it last? 10 days
Who was president? Gerald Ford
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 62-38; Mike Mansfield was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 291-144; Carl Albert was speaker
Why did it happen? The major budget conflict during this period came because Ford vetoed a funding bill for the Departments of Labor and Health, Education, and Welfare (or HEW, today split into the Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services), arguing that it failed to restrain spending adequately.
What resolved it? Congress overrode Ford's veto Oct. 1, so the spending bills took effect, but it wasn't until over a week later that the partial shutdown ended, as it was only on Oct.11 that a continuing resolution ending funding gaps for other parts of government became law.


The late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), middle, was the leading advocate for restricting the use of Medicaid funds for abortions. (Win McNamee/Reuters)

Shutdown #2: The Abortion Shutdown

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct. 13, 1977
How long did it last? 12 days
Who was president? Jimmy Carter
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 59-41; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 292-143; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? The House insisted on continuing the ban on using Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions except in cases where the life of the mother was at stake. The Senate wanted to loosen this to include allowances for abortions in the case of rape or incest or when the mother's health was in danger. Because the issue had become tied to funding for Labor and HEW, failure to come to an agreement led those agencies to have a funding gap.
What resolved it? The Medicaid ban was continued until Oct. 31 and the shutdown ended, to give negotiators more time to work out a deal.


(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Shutdown #3: The Abortion Shutdown II: Abortion Boogaloo

When did it take place? Oct. 31 to Nov. 9, 1977
How long did it last? 8 days
Who was president? Jimmy Carter
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 59-41; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 292-143; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? Not enough time had elapsed since the temporary measure ending the shutdown passed for the abortion standoff to be resolved.
What resolved it? Another temporary bill was signed by Carter to allow for more time for Congress to resolve its abortion dispute.


(Alberto Martínez/AP)

Shutdown #4: The Abortion Shutdown III: Dark of the Moon

When did it take place? Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, 1977
How long did it last? 8 days
Who was president? Jimmy Carter
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 59-41; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 292-143; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? The second temporary measure ending a shutdown, meant to allow more time for negotiation, didn't last long enough. The House, in particular, rejected a Senate proposal that would have allowed for Medicaid to pay for abortions by victims of statutory rape. House conservatives rejected it as too lax and House liberals as too tough on rape victims. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is still in the House, asked on the House floor, "What happens in Fort Apache [South Bronx], where a girl is gang-raped and told she will be killed if she reports it?"

What resolved it? A deal was brokered in which the exception allowing Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases where the mother's life is endangered was widened to include abortions resulting from rape or incest, or which are necessary to protect the mother's health (even if her life was not endangered).


Jimmy Carter's battle with a nuclear aircraft carrier prepared him to do battle with this here bunny wabbit. (The Jimmy Carter Library)

Shutdown #5: Jimmy Carter vs. the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct.18, 1978
How long did it last? 18 days
Who was president? Jimmy Carter
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 59-41; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 292-143; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? Congress passed a defense bill including funding for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Carter judged that carrier wasteful and vetoed it. He also vetoed a public works appropriations bill because of water projects that he considered wasteful pork. Additionally, spending for HEW was delayed, once again, over a dispute concerning funding for abortion.
What resolved it? A new defense bill, excluding funding for the carrier, was passed, as was a new public works bill excluding the water projects Carter opposed. The previous year's compromise solution on abortion, in which funding was reserved for cases of rape, incest and jeopardy to the mother's health, was agreed to in both houses.


(Eric Gay/AP)

Shutdown #6: Higher pay, fewer abortions

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct. 12, 1979
How long did it last? 11 days
Who was president? Jimmy Carter
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 58-42; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 277-158; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? The House wanted to raise congressional and senior civil servant pay by 5.5 percent, which the Senate opposed. The lower house also wanted to limit federal abortion spending to cases where the mother's life was in danger, while the Senate wanted to keep funding in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother's health is in serious jeopardy. The dispute was not resolved before a partial shutdown.
What resolved it? The House got its pay increases but had to allow abortion funding in cases of rape or incest (but not when the mother's health, rather than life, was in danger). The latter was a slight tightening of the previous year's Medicaid abortion compromise.


(Ira Schwarz/AP)

Shutdown #7: You wouldn't like Reagan when he's angry

When did it take place? Nov. 20-23, 1981
How long did it last? 2 days
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 244-191; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? Reagan promised to veto any spending bill that didn't include at least half of his proposed $8.4 billion in domestic budget cuts. The Senate passed a bill that met his specifications, but the House insisted on both greater defense cuts than Reagan wanted and pay raises for itself and for senior-level federal civil servants. Eventually, the House and Senate agreed to and passed a package that fell $2 billion short of the cuts Reagan wanted, so Reagan vetoed it and shut down the government.
What resolved it? The House and Senate passed, and Reagan signed, a bill extending current spending through Dec. 15, giving them time to work out a longer-lasting deal.


So this picture of Robert Byrd patting D.C. Mayor Walter Washington's chest is pretty weird. (AP)

Shutdown #8: Let them eat shutdown

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1982
How long did it last? 1 day
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 244-191; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? Basically no reason. The new fiscal year started and Congress just hadn't passed new spending in time, and so parts of the government were forced to shut down. While there were some disagreements over spending levels between the House and Senate and the administration, the reason the former didn't pass the bill before a shutdown was basically that they had other plans.

"Congressional leaders barred a late-night session because of major social events tonight by both Republicans and Democrats," Martin Tolchin at the New York Times reported. "President Reagan invited all members of Congress to a barbecue at the White House, while Democrats were having a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner."
What resolved it? The House and Senate passed spending bills late, and Reagan signed them despite the fact that they exceeded his desired spending levels in the near-run.


Vice President George Bush and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill during a Joint Session of Congress on March 20, 1985. (James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)

Shutdown #9: Tip O'Neill takes on a nuclear missile and wins

When did it take place? Dec.17-21, 1982
How long did it last? 3 days
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 244-191; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? House and Senate negotiators want to fund $5.4 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, in public works spending to create jobs, but the Reagan administration threatened to veto any spending bill that included jobs money. The House also opposed funding the MX missile program, a major defense priority of Reagan's.
What resolved it? The House and Senate abandoned their jobs plans but declined to fund the MX missile, or the Pershing II missile (which was a medium-range missile, while the MX was intercontinental). They also provided funding for the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal support for poor Americans and which Reagan had wanted abolished, and increased foreign aid to Israel above what Reagan wanted. While Reagan criticized these moves, he grudgingly signed the bill following a short shutdown.

Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister of Israel when this shutdown occurred. (Getty Images)
Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister of Israel when this shutdown occurred. (Getty Images)

Shutdown #10: So you can have your missiles but Israel gets some, too

When did it take place? Nov. 10-14, 1983
How long did it last? 3 days
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 55-45; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 271-164; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? House Democrats passed an amendment adding close to $1 billion in education spending. They also cut foreign aid below what Reagan wanted, adding money for Israel and Egypt but cutting it substantially for Syria and El Salvador, and cut defense spending by about $11 billion relative to Reagan's request. The dispute wasn't resolved before a short shutdown could occur.
What resolved it?  House Democrats agreed to reduce their education spending request to about $100 million. They also funded the MX missile, which they had successfully cut funding for during the last shutdown battle. However, they kept their foreign aid and defense cuts, and got a ban on oil and gas leasing in federal animal refuges. The spending bill also added a ban on using federal employee health insurance to fund abortions, except when the mother's life was in danger, similar to the ban already in place for Medicaid (see above). That wasn't as partisan an issue at the time; it was a win for anti-abortion members of both parties (including Reagan and O'Neill) and loss for pro-choice Democrats and Republicans (including Baker).


(Courtesy of Grove City College)

Shutdown #11: Omnishutdown

When did it take place? Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, 1984
How long did it last? 2 days
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 55-45; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 270-165; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? Passage of a spending bill was complicated by the House linking it to a crime-fighting package (which Reagan wanted) and a water projects package (which he opposed), and the Senate's tying it to a civil rights measure (which Reagan also opposed) that would have reversed a Supreme Court ruling weakening civil rights requirements on universities receiving federal funds. Reagan offered to forgo his crime bill in exchange for junking the water package and the civil rights provision, but a deal wasn't reached in time to avoid a brief shutdown.
What resolved it? A three-day spending extension was passed and signed so that the parties could keep negotiating.

Shutdown #12: Omnishutdown II — Shut Down Harder

When did it take place? Oct. 3-5, 1984
How long did it last? 1 day
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 55-45; Howard Baker was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 270-165; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? The three-day extension (see above) wasn't long enough, apparently.
What resolved it? Congress relented and the water projects were stripped from a spending bill, as was the civil rights measure. They passed a crime package along Reagan's desired lines as well. A compromise was worked out on funding for the Nicaraguan Contras (which emerged as an issue in the course of the negotiations, despite not initially being a cause of the shutdowns), wherein the anti-Sandinista forces could be funded until early the following year.

Shutdown #13: Welfare expansion fail

When did it take place? Oct. 16-18, 1986
How long did it last? 1 day
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Bob Dole was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 253-182; Tip O'Neill was speaker
Why did it happen? The brief shutdown followed several disagreements between Reagan and the Democrat-controlled House, including over a provision to ban companies from creating subsidiaries to get around labor contracts, another requiring that half the goods and labor used in offshore oil rigs be American in origin, and one that would have expanded Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which is what welfare was known as at the time. All of those were policies supported by House Democrats and opposed by Reagan and Senate Republicans. The dispute wasn't resolved in time to avoid a shutdown.
What resolved it? House Democrats gave up a number of their demands, and secured a promise for a vote on their welfare expansion, and in return passed appropriations necessary to reopen the government. Republicans, meanwhile, offered a concession related to the government's sale of Conrail, a then-public railway.

Shutdown #14: I Think You're a Contra

When did it take place? Dec. 18-20, 1987
How long did it last? 1 day
Who was president? Ronald Reagan
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 54-46; Robert Byrd was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 258-177; Jim Wright was speaker
Why did it happen? Reagan and congressional Democrats could not agree on funding for the Nicaraguan "Contra" militants in time to avoid a shutdown. Additionally, Democrats pushed for a provision reinstating the "Fairness Doctrine," which required that broadcasters give equal airing to both sides in political disputes, and which the FCC had recently stopped enforcing at the time.
What resolved it? Democrats yielded on the Fairness Doctrine, and a deal was worked out wherein nonlethal aid was provided to the Contras.


OMB director Richard Darman, right, with then-Sen. Wyche Fowler and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, in 1990). (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Shutdown #15: Somebody come up with a plan!

When did it take place? Oct. 5-9, 1990
How long did it last? 3 days
Who was president? George H.W. Bush
Who controlled the Senate? Democrats, 55-45; George Mitchell was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Democrats, 258-176; Tom Foley was speaker
Why did it happen? Bush refused to sign any continuing resolution into law unless it was paired with a deficit reduction plan, and backed up the pledge by vetoing one that made it to his desk. The House failed to override his veto and the conflict was not resolved before a shutdown.
What resolved it? The House and Senate adopted a joint budget resolution that provided an outline for reducing the deficit, and Bush then signed a continuing resolution they sent him, ending the shutdown.


Federal workers marched outside the State Department on Jan. 3, 1996, to protest the partial federal government shutdown. (AP)

Shutdown #16: Clinton v. Gingrich, the First

When did it take place? Nov. 13-19, 1995
How long did it last? 5 days
Who was president? Bill Clinton
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Bob Dole was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Republicans, 233-199; Newt Gingrich was speaker
Why did it happen? The GOP-run Congress sent Clinton a continuing resolution that would have raised Medicare premiums, committed the president to balance the budget within seven years, and curtailed environmental regulations, among other provisions. He vetoed it, triggering a shutdown.
What resolved it? The shutdown was ended when Clinton, Gingrich and Dole reached an agreement to fund the government at 75 percent levels for four weeks while budget negotiations continued. Clinton also agreed to the seven-year balanced budget timeline. Workers furloughed during the shutdown were given back pay.


Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich hold budget negotiations \Dec. 19, 1995. (Richard Ellis/AFP-Getty Images)

Shutdown #17: Clinton v. Gingrich, the Second: Baseline Boogaloo

When did it take place? Dec. 5, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996
How long did it last? 21 days
Who was president? Bill Clinton
Who controlled the Senate? Republicans, 53-47; Bob Dole was majority leader
Who controlled the House? Republicans, 235-198; Newt Gingrich was speaker
Why did it happen? Republican leaders demanded that the White House propose a seven-year budget plan that balanced when using the CBO's economic forecasts, rather than the OMB's, which were more optimistic. The plan Clinton proposed still produced a $115 billion deficit in seven years according to CBO numbers, even as the OMB estimated that it would balance the budget by then. The dispute was not resolved before the continuing resolution agreed to a month earlier (see previous entry) expired.
What resolved it? Republicans caved, basically, and passed legislation to keep the government open. Clinton, in turn, submitted a budget plan that the CBO said balanced the budget within seven years.

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