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21 Government Shutdown Statistics Spanning 43 Years and 8 Presidents

Government funding in the US should last for a year. Congress passes several appropriation bills laying out what each program and agency gets for the fiscal year. This process is done by the 1st of October every year.

Whenever Congress doesn’t adhere to this deadline, the government gets into either a full or partial shutdown (depending on the agencies that need funding to keep running). Usually, these funding gaps last for a couple of hours and don’t necessarily affect government operations. However, over time, since 1976 (when the first government shutdown occurred), we have seen shutdowns last for weeks. The longest shutdown lasted for 35 days during president Trump’s reign.

Since 1976, when the appropriation process was enacted, the US has had a record of 21 funding gaps. Ten of these funding gaps have led to the furloughing of federal workers.

In this piece, we will go back in time and recount all the government shutdowns and seek to understand why they occurred. We will group these funding gaps by presidents.

Gerald Ford

1. 30th September to 11th October 1976

This is the first government shutdown. It lasted for ten days. The speaker and the majority leader at the time were Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield.

President Gerald Ford vetoed a funding bill for the departments of Education, Welfare and Labor and Health. These departments have since been grouped into the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education. However, this was not the cause of the shutdown since the Democrats overrode this veto rapidly on the basis that it didn’t restrain funding properly. But even then, it wasn’t until the 11th of October that Congress passed a continuing resolution that put a halt at the funding gap of other government agencies and departments.

Jimmy Carter

There were quite a few government shutdowns under his watch.

2. The Abortion Shutdown

This took place between 30th September and 13th October 1977. It lasted for 12 days. The speaker and the majority leader were Tip O’Neill and Robert Byrd.

It happened because the House was insisting on retaining the ban of the use of Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions except for situations where the mother’s life was on the line. O the other hand, the Senate was looking to loosen the rules to include cases of incest, rape and when the mother’s health was at stake. This issue was tied to the HEW and Labor funding. As such, when the two couldn’t agree, these government agencies and departments went into a funding gap.

The shutdown ended when it was decided that the negotiators needed a little more time to come up with a deal both parties were pleased with. The funding gap stopped, but the Medicaid ban continued until the 31st of October.

3. Abortion Shutdown II

This shutdown took place between the 31st of October and 9th of November 1977. It lasted for eight days.

The time negotiators were given to come up with a solution wasn’t enough. And by the 31st of October, they didn’t have a solution to the abortion standoff.

A temporary bill resolved this 2nd phase of the shutdown by President Carter allowing giving more time to come up with a solution.

4. Abortion Shutdown III

It happened between 30th November and 9th December 1977. The abortion lasted for only 8 days.

The extension by the president wasn’t long enough to come up with a lasting solution. During the extension, the House had rejected a proposal by the Senate to allow Medicaid to cater to abortion costs when the mothers were victims of rape. The conservatives in the House declined it, saying it was too relaxed while the Liberals in the house thought it was too tough on the rape victims.

The standoff was finally dealt with when they reached an agreement. This agreement included allowing Medicaid to cater to abortion costs in situations where the mother’s life was at stake and if the pregnancy was as a result of incest or rape or when it endangered the health of the mother (even if her life isn’t on the line).

5. Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

This was the first Jimmy Carter government shutdown that wasn’t about abortion (not entirely). The shutdown happened between 30th September and 18th October 1978. It lasted for a whopping 18 days, and it was the longest shutdown at the time.

At the time, Congress had passed a bill for the defense sector which gave accorded funding for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. President Carter considered funding a nuclear aircraft carrier wasteful and vetoed the bill. In addition to this, President Carter also vetoed a public works bill since he thought the water projects were wasteful pork.

This shutdown was resolved when funding for the opposed bills was canceled. In addition to this, the Medicaid abortion exceptions passed the previous years were retained.

6. Reduced abortions and increased pay

This shutdown took place between 30th September and 12th October 1979. The funding gap lasted for 11 days.

It happened because the House wanted to (again), limit the provision for Medicaid abortion costs, and the Senate was hell-bent on retaining it as they had agreed on two years ago – to include cases of incest and rape and when a mother’s health is at risk. In addition to this, the House was looking to increase the senior servant and congressional pay by a whopping 5.5%. Needless to say, the Senate was against it.

The funding gap as resolved when the House got its way with the pay but under the condition, they allowed federal abortion spending in cases of rape and incest. They scraped off cases when the mother’s health was at risk and not her life.

Ronald Reagan

7. Reagan got angry

The shutdown was between 20th November and 23rd November 1981. It lasted for only two days. The speaker was Tip O’Neill while the majority leader was Howard Baker.

In retrospect, this was the very first government shutdown that was real in the sense of the word. The functions of the federal government were profoundly impaired. During this time, President Reagan had promised he’d veto any bill that didn’t meet at least half of $8.4 billion in cuts. The Senate was willing to abide by this directive and even passed a bill meeting the outlined specifications. However, The House still insisted on getting larger defense cuts that Reagan was comfortable with. And to top it off, it wanted to raise pay for the civil servants and itself. The two houses reached an agreement and presented bills that were only $2 billion short of the required threshold. But Regan would not have any of it. So he vetoed the bill and in turn shut down the government.

The shutdown following this standoff led to the furloughing of about 241,000 federal workers. It was the first time a funding gap has such intense consequences in terms of federal government operations.

But this funding gap ended fast because Congress came up with a continuing resolution, which bought them a month to negotiate and fine-tune the details of the agreement.

8. Let Them Eat

This shutdown happened between the 30th of September and 2nd of October of 1982. It lasted for only a day.

In all honesty, there wasn’t any real reason for the shutdown. The New Year began, and Congress had not passed spending bills on time. For this reason, a few parts of the government had to shut down.

While the Senate and the House did not see eye to eye on the spending levels, the reason why the bills weren’t passed in time is that they had social engagements! The Congress was invited for a Barbecue by Reagan at the White House, and Democrats had a fundraising dinner.

The funding gap was resolved fast when the bills were passed. But because they were late, Reagan signed the bills despite them not meeting his desired thresh-holds in the short term.

9. Nuclear Missile Funding Declined

This shutdown took place between the 17th of December and 21st of December 1982. The shutdown lasted for only three days. The majority leader and speaker were Howard Baker and Tip O’Neill.

So what necessitated the shutdown? Well, you can call it a president tantrum. This shutdown was all because Reagan couldn’t get what he wanted. You see, Reagan really wanted to kick start the MX missile program. But the Senate and the House (this time on the same side of the playing field), wanted something different. They presented bills to fund $5.4 billion (from the House) and $1.2 billion (from the Senate) in public works. These monies were to create more jobs. However, Reagan’s administration threatened to veto the bills.

The Senate and the House reacted by giving up their initial public works bills, but still refused to back the MX missile program. And instead, they presented a bill to fund Legal Services Corp. This body provided free legal support to Americans who couldn’t afford legal representation (something Reagan wanted to abolish). They also increased their foreign aid to Israel above the threshold Reagan was comfortable with.

These moves didn’t sit well with Reagan, and he spoke against them publicly. However, he ended up signing the bill, but after the government shutdown.

10. Reagan Gets his Missiles but So Does Israel

This shutdown was between 10th and 14th of November 1983.

This is what transpired. The House passed an amended bill which added about $1 billion to education spending. At the same time, the house sliced foreign aid funding to figures way below recommendations of Reagan’s administration. On the flip side, it upped Egypt’s and Israel’s funding and cut El Salvador’s and Syria’s funding significantly. And that’s not all the House proceeded to reduce defense spending by $11 billion below what Reagan had requested for. The amendments and deals were not arrived at until after a shutdown.

During the shutdown, the House agreed to reduce the provision for Education spending to $100 million. In addition to this, they gave in to the MX missile program which they had successfully thrown to the curb in the previous year. But while Reagan got his MX missile program, the defense and foreign aid cuts remained, and a ban was effected on gas and oil drilling in the federal animal refuges.

In addition to these, a ban was placed on the use of federal employee health insurance to cater to the cost of abortions except in situations where the mother’s life was on the line. This ban was similar to the Medicaid ban. At the time, this was a win for all those who were against abortion.

11. Three way Impasse

This shutdown was between 30th September and 3rd October 1984. It lasted for 2 days.

The house, the Senate and Reagan just couldn’t agree on the spending bill. The House linked it to a water project, which Reagan was against and a crime-fighting which Reagan was for. On the other hand, the Senate tied the spending bill to a measure of the civil rights that Reagan was also against.

Passing this measure meant reversing a ruling by the Supreme Courts and weakening the civil requirements of the universities to receive funds from the federal government.

In the long run, Reagan ended up foregoing the crime bill for discarding the civil right requirement and the water project package. But unfortunately, this deal wasn’t struck until after the shutdown.

The three parties settled on passing a 3-day extension to continue negotiations.

12. Three way Impasse II

This shutdown lasted for two days between 3rd October and 5th October 1984

Unfortunately, the 3-day extension for negotiations wasn’t enough. During the shutdown, 500,000 federal workers got furloughed. Congress ended up stripping the civil rights measures, and the water projects from the spending bill. In addition to this, they give in to Reagans wants and passed the crime package.

However, they did end up securing temporary funding for the Nicaragua Contras (an issue that came up during the negotiations).

13. Expansion for Welfare Fails

This shutdown occurred between 16th of October and 18th of October 1986. It only lasted for a day. But during that day, 500,000 federal workers were furloughed.

The shutdown was as a result of some disagreements between the Democrat House and Reagan. The disputes were over the ban on companies to create subsidiaries to find a way around the labor contracts.

The other issue was over the requirement that half the labor and goods used in all the offshore rigs be from America and last but not least the expansion of the Aid To Families with Dependent Children (this was the name given to Welfare in the 80s. All these issues were supported by the House, but Reagan was against them.

The shutdown was solved by the Democrats giving in on some of their demands at the expense of securing a promise to get the welfare expansion vote when the time came. In addition, it also passed the spending bills needed to fuel the running of the government.

14. To the Aid of Contra

This shutdown lasted 1 day from 18t December to 20th December 1987. The majority leader at the time was Robert Byrd, and the speaker was Jim Wright.

The funding gap came about when Congress (the Democrats) and Reagan couldn’t see eye to eye on the issue of funding the Nicaragua Contra. Moreover, the Democrats wanted to get back the airness Doctrine’ back in play. This doctrine ensured that broadcasters provided both political sides equal airing. Well, the Fairness Doctrine was in play only that the FCC wasn’t enforcing it.

The solution was that the Democrats folded on the equal airing and struck a deal which outlined the Nicaraguan Contras would receive nonlethal aid.

George H.W Bush

15. A Plan was hatched

The shutdown lasted for 3 days between 5th October and 9th October 1990. The majority leader was George Mitchel, and the speaker was Tom Foley.

Bush promised to veto all continuing resolutions that didn’t provide a solid plan of reducing the deficit. Well, the House called him bluff and tried to be clever with him but failed. This led to a shutdown where millions of federal workers got furloughed. In the end, the Senate and the House came up with a joint budget, which provided for the required deficit plan. Bush honored his word and signed the continuing resolution, bringing the shutdown to an end.

Bill Clinton

16. Gingrich and Clinton Save the Day

The shutdown took place between 13th November and 19th November 1995. It lasted for 5 days.

The government went into a shutdown because Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution that would have committed him to a 7-year budget balance plan, increased Medicare premiums and put a leash on the environmental regulations.

The funding gap was resolved by Clinton, Dole, and Gingrich when they agreed on funding the government at only 75% for only 4 weeks while negotiations ensued. Clinton also gave in on the 7-year balanced budget.

Every worker that was furloughed during this shutdown was given back pay.

17. Clinton Vs. Gingrich Part II

This shutdown lasted for 21 days between 5th December and 6th January 1996.

The funding gap was caused by a disagreement on which economic forecast they would use to check whether the budget provided by the white house balanced according to the initial agreement. The choice was between the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO’s forecast was cautious. It projected that after the 7 years; there still will be a $115 billion deficit.

The Republicans eventually gave in after which Clinton presented a new plan which CBO approved. During the 5-day shutdown, 284,000 federal workers got furloughed. At the time, this was the longest shutdown.

Barack Obama

18. Obamacare on the Chopping Block

This shutdown lasted for only 16 days between 1st October and 17th October 2013.

The shutdown occurred because Ted Cruz had successfully managed to pressure the White House to agree to lower discretionary spending and the House (Republicans), wanted that any spending bill passed to delay Obamacare’s implementation by a whole year. Obamacare was to be launched in 2014 and Heritage Action and Ted Cruz were hell-bent on stopping it before it rolled out and gained political supporters.

After a little over two weeks, the speaker John Boehner folded and passed the funding bill. This bill didn’t defend the Obamacare program even though most were against it. During the 16 days, about 850,000 federal workers were furloughed.

Donald Trump

19. Unauthorized Deportation

This shut down lasted for 3 days between 20th January and 22nd January 2018. This shutdown was all about immigration (the one thing that got Trump elected).

The Democrats were forcing Trump’s administration as well as the Congress to protect all immigrants who came into the US as children. They based their argument on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program. The Democrats garnered enough votes for the bill in the Senate, but there were still those who voted against it, leading to the shutdown.

However, the Republicans folded soon after and the funding bill was passed. However, McConnell, the majority leader at the time, promised to have a vote for the immigration bill.

20. The Micro Shutdown

Calling this a shutdown is being overly generous. The shutdown on 9th of February 2018 lasted for a meager 9 hours. The shutdown mostly involved the Speaker Paul Ryan forcing his coworkers to remain at the office until dawn.

Paul was pissed that congressional leaders had struck a deal to increase the budget caps. Many Republicans agreed with the arrangement since they got higher defense spending. But Paul was against this and has always been a critic of defense spending. As such, he delayed passing the bill until 5:30 am causing a icro’ shutdown.

21. Longest Shut down in History

This is the most recent shutdown. It started on 21st December 2018 and continued to 25th January 2019. It lasted for a whopping 35 days.

During this time a total of 420,000 government employees went without pay. As the shutdown stretch on, many went in search of part-time jobs to pay their bills. The government employees furloughed in the different departments by December of 2018 were as follows;

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration-96%
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development-95%
  • Department of Commerce-86%
  • Forest Service-80%
  • National Park Service-80%
  • Department of Transportation-30%

By 18th January 2019, the government owed billions in employee pay and had lost billions in labor value as well. Here are the statistics.

Money owed to federal employees in millions as of 18th January 2019:

  • Department of Homeland Security-1000
  • Department of Justice-700
  • Department of the Treasury-410
  • Department of Transportation-350
  • Department of the Interior-300
  • Department of Agriculture-300
  • Department of Health and Human Services-150
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration-140
  • Department of Commerce-130
  • Environmental Protection Agency-110
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development-55

Value of lost labor in millions;

  • Department of the Interior-221.54
  • Department of the Treasury-180
  • Department of Agriculture-138.95
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration-133.78
  • Department of Homeland Security-130.61
  • Environmental Protection Agency-102.93
  • Department of Justice-78.5
  • Department of Transportation-69.09
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development-45.34
  • Department of Commerce – 40.44
  • Department of Health and Human Services-36.36

But what caused the shutdown for 35 days? Well, the story has lots of twists and turns, but basically, it’s the funding for the Mexico border wall. But here’s the short version of the twist-filled shutdown.

In 2017 and 2018, Trump had been expressing interest in getting funding the Mexico border wall, but it kept getting declined. Trump approved successive budget despite the declines. But in December 2018, as government funding discussions took their normal course, Trump held a meeting in the White House with Democrat congressional leaders on Live TV. He threatened to force the government into a year-long shutdown is he was denied $5 billion for the Mexico wall.

So the Congress revised its budget to include $1.5 billion for border security, but left out money to build the wall. Trump was ready to compromise, but later refused to sign an extension of spending.

He went back to the $5 billion funding and would have nothing less. In the course of the shutdown, he blamed the Democrats for it and floated the idea of announcing a national emergency and rerouting funding meant for disaster relief and military if he didn’t get his way.

However, on 25th January 2019, he agreed to a stopgap and reopened government for 3 weeks until 15th of February 2019 to give room for negotiations. But things didn’t end up as he’d hoped. So, on the 15th of February 2019, he announced a national emergency and bypassed the Congress.

During the shutdown, Trump’s approval ratings took a dip. Americans weren’t so happy with the use of a shutdown as a tool for negotiation.

Here are the results of the polls to show what the Americans felt about the 25-day shutdown.

  • Support – 25%
  • Oppose – 63%
  • Not Sure – 12%

Additionally, a majority of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown.

Here’s a public poll that shows this:

  • Republicans in Congress – 6.4%
  • Other – 9%
  • Democrats in Congress – 35.1%
  • President Trump – 49.5%

Government shutdowns since 1976 are a common thing. However, this does not take away the fact that they affect the lives of many employees in the process. Quite frankly, America could do without them. But if history is anything to go by, they are here to stay since in politics, there will always be disagreements.