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Then and Now: The Truth About Government Shutdowns

Then and Now: The Truth About Government Shutdowns
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Written by Scott Lilly

Having had a front-row seat to the events that led to the 1995–1996 government shutdowns—and having witnessed the previous shutdowns from a somewhat more comfortable distance—I am rather amazed at how people are misremembering the history on this subject. This misremembering involves the number of shutdowns, the duration of the shutdowns, the cause of the shutdowns and the conclusions that were drawn about the effects of the shutdowns.

First, there have not—as some members of the House of Representatives enthused on the final Saturday before the end of the fiscal year—been 17 government shutdowns. That number includes six so-called shutdowns that occurred before former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued his 1980 opinion stating that agencies without appropriations had to at least partially shut down.

Civiletti’s opinion argued that government employees who worked as “volunteers” during periods in which their agencies were without funding were in effect creating an obligation for future payments by their agencies, in violation of the 1870 Antideficiency Act. Deliberate violations of that act by administrators who create obligations for which there are no appropriations are punishable by criminal prosecution. As such, the Civiletti opinion brought about a change in the way agencies cope with gaps in their annual appropriations.

But for the purpose of understanding the history of what happens when Congress fails to appropriate agency budgets, it is important to note that during the so-called shutdowns prior to the Civiletti opinion, there was very little difference between how the government operated when appropriations were available and when there was a funding gap.

large majority of the remaining “shutdowns” were over weekends and holidays. Since nearly all federal workers on the job on weekends are doing work that would be classified as “essential,” there was very little difference between the manner in which the government operated on such occasions and any other weekend for which Congress had provided funding for operations.

The only two clear exceptions to that were in 1995. The first government shutdown that year began on Tuesday, November 14, and concluded the following Sunday, for a shutdown of six calendar days, including four full workdays. The second real shutdown began on Saturday, December 15, and concluded Saturday, January 6, for a shutdown of 21 calendar days, including 13 full workdays.

The size of the shutdowns also differed significantly. Some of the pre-1995 “shutdowns” were not only on weekends but actually involved only a few departments of the government, as Congress had already completed appropriations legislation for most of the government before the impasse over spending was reached. In 1995, Congress had completed 5 of the 13 appropriations bills before the November 14 shutdown occurred. President Bill Clinton had signed four of those bills—Agriculture, Energy and Water, Transportation and Military Construction. He vetoed a fifth, the Legislative Branch bill, signaling to Congress that he would not fund its staff until it funded the White House, which was contained in the Treasury-Post Office bill. As a result, the first shutdown in 1995 involved only 12 of the 15 departments of the federal government.

Shortly after the government reopened on November 19, President Clinton signed the Treasury-Post Office bill and the Legislative Branch bill. A week and a half later, he allowed the Defense bill to become law without his signature. But by mid-December, he was once again ready to assert his veto authority, rejecting the Interior bill; the Commerce, Justice, and State bill; and the Veterans-Housing and Urban Development bill. On December 15, there was a second gap in appropriations, but this time it affected agencies and programs in only 6 of the 13 bills and less than one-fifth of the federal workforce.

It is important to note that neither of these shutdowns was nearly as large as the current shutdown, neither in terms of the number of appropriations bills for which a continuing resolution was required nor in terms of the number of departments impacted.

What’s more, all previous shutdowns have been entirely—or, in the case of the 1995 shutdowns, at least partially—over differences on the level of discretionary spending or, in other words, spending controlled by the annual appropriations bills. Through the years, both parties and both the executive and legislative branches have respected the notion that a continuing resolution was a short-term compromise necessary to maintain the orderly delivery of critical services to the nation.

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Photo Credit: John Sonderman

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99 comments

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9:37PM PDT on Oct 16, 2013

ROARS with laughter greed consumed foreigners???? HAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAH

David You are so full of gas its beyond belief.

11:47PM PDT on Oct 13, 2013

It appears that Ron B. and I have the same dream; that we have a two party system consisting of the Democrats, as the conservatives, and a party like the Greens.

I also dream of Elizabeth Warren as President.

10:29PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

Informative article. Thank you

9:36PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

David F.....there probably isn't one country that is envious of the US right now.....It is idiots like you and the teaparty that are ruining it.....Greed?......look in the mirror david......your badge of honour is hiding where the "Sun don't shine"

9:32PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

Mary B, criticism from greed consumed, envious foreigners is a badge of honor, thank you.

7:11PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

ty for a well-written article; truly food-for-thought

5:31PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

David F..... the real conspiracy is how someone like you, who claims to be "intelligent", can be so hoodwinked by the GOP.....It's so sad :-(

4:56PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

Hey Mark conspiracy K, Seems every other post on this site is someone with a new conspiracy, LOL, your post shows you love conspiracy’s since you know nothing about history, I’ve got a good one you’ll love:
On July 8, 1947, numerous witnesses claim that an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), with five aliens aboard crashed onto a sheep and mule ranch just outside Roswell, New Mexico. This is a well-known incident that many say has long been covered-up
by the U.S. Air Force, as well as other Federal Agencies and Organizations.
However, what you may NOT know is that in the month of April, year
1948, nine months after the historic day, the following people were born:

Barrack Obama Sr., Albert A. Gore, Jr., Hillary Rodham, William J. Clinton, John F. Kerry, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Charles E. Schumer, Barbara Boxer, Joe Biden.
This is the obvious consequence of aliens breeding with sheep and jack-asses. I truly hope this bit of information clears up a lot of things for you. Now you can stop wondering why they support the bill to repopulate us all Illegal Aliens.
For entertainment purposes only, however watch how many Care 2 posters will be elated over a new conspiracy that will consume them for months to come, LOL.

4:51PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

What if we hired scab representatives to replace Congress while they're "on strike"? A funny satire here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MbPwMqQAy146Wb0FAyNSLYPHooa1TQoPHYJKrRMVfWU/edit?usp=sharing

4:28PM PDT on Oct 8, 2013

What Boenher really wants to do is to prove he is more 'manly' than President Obama. That the power of the US does not rest in the hands of an african american because an african american cannot rule the country and an african american can never be elected president again. Personally, I am sick of the republicans and their kowtowing to corporations and racists.

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