Government shutdowns in the United States

In United States politics, a government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass sufficient appropriation bills or continuing resolutions to fund federal government operations and agencies, or when the President refuses to sign such bills or resolutions into law. In such cases, the current interpretation of the Antideficiency Act requires that the federal government begin a "shutdown" of the affected activities involving the furlough of non-essential personnel and curtailment of agency activities and services. Essential employees are still required to work without pay until the government reopens, when they may then receive back pay. These employees may include medical professionals in the Veterans Hospitals and TSA agents.

In United States politics, a government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass sufficient appropriation bills or continuing resolutions to fund federal government operations and agencies, or when the President refuses to sign such bills or resolutions into law. In such cases, the current interpretation of the Antideficiency Act requires that the federal government begin a "shutdown" of the affected activities involving the furlough of non-essential personnel and curtailment of agency activities and services. Essential employees are still required to work without pay until the government reopens, when they may then receive back pay. These employees may include medical professionals in the Veterans Hospitals and TSA agents.

Since 1976, when the current budget and appropriations process was enacted, there have been 22 gaps in budget funding, 10 of which led to federal employees being furloughed. Prior to 1990, funding gaps did not always lead to government shutdowns, but since 1990 the practice has been to shut down the government for all funding gaps. Shutdowns have also occurred at the state, territorial, and local levels of government.During the Ronald Reagan administration, there were a total of eight shutdowns lasting four days or less. Reasons were arguments over the fairness doctrine, a welfare package, a water package, a crime fighting package, foreign aid cuts, MX missile funding, needed spending bills and cuts in defense. A funding gap in 1990 during the George H. W. Bush administration caused a weekend shutdown. During the Bill Clinton administration, there were two full government shutdowns during 1995 and 1996 lasting five and 21 days respectively, based on disagreement on whether to cut government services. During the Barack Obama administration, a 16-day government shutdown occurred during October 2013 over Democrats and Republicans not coming to an agreement for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare. Three funding gaps have occurred during the Donald Trump administration: a three-day shutdown during January 2018; a funding gap that occurred overnight on February 9, 2018, which did not result in workers being furloughed (not included in list below); and an ongoing shutdown that began during December 2018, over proposed funding for a US–Mexico border wall.Government shutdowns have the effect of disrupting government services and increasing costs to the government due to lost labor. During the 2013 shutdown, Standard & Poor's, the financial ratings agency, stated on October 16 that the shutdown had "to date taken $24 billion out of the economy", and "shaved at least 0.6 percent off annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth".


Under the separation of powers created by the United States Constitution, the United States Congress has the sole power of the purse and responsibility for appropriating government funds. Like other bills, appropriations must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Upon passage of a final version by both houses, they go to the President of the United States. If the President signs the bills, they become law. If instead the President vetoes them, they go back to Congress, where the veto can (in rare instances) be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Government shutdowns tend to occur when the President and one or both of the chambers of Congress are unable to resolve disagreements over budget allocations before the existing budget cycle ends.Initially, many federal agencies continued to operate during shutdowns, while minimizing all nonessential operations and obligations, believing that Congress did not intend that agencies close down while waiting for the enactment of annual appropriations acts or temporary appropriations. In 1980 and 1981, however, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two opinions that more strictly interpreted the Antideficiency Act in the context of a funding gap, along with its exceptions. The opinions stated that, with some exceptions, the head of an agency could avoid violating the Act only by suspending the agency’s operations until the enactment of an appropriation. In the absence of appropriations, exceptions would be allowed only when there is some reasonable and articulable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property. However, even after the Civiletti opinions, not all funding gaps led to shutdowns. Of the nine funding gaps between 1980 and 1990, only four led to furloughs.Shutdowns of the type experienced by the United States are nearly impossible in other forms of government. Under the parliamentary systems used in most European nations, the executive must maintain the approval of the legislature to remain in power (confidence and supply), and typically an election is triggered if a budget fails to pass (loss of supply). In other presidential systems, the executive branch typically has the authority to keep the government functioning even without an approved budget.


While government shutdowns prior to the 1995–1996 shutdowns had very mild effects, a full federal government shutdown causes a large number of civilian federal employees to be furloughed. During a government shutdown, furloughed government employees are prohibited from even checking their e-mail from home. To enforce this prohibition, many agencies require employees to return their government-issued electronic devices for the duration of the shutdown.Economic data shows that despite the inconvenience arising from a protracted government shutdown (such as the one seen in 2013), any GDP damage or falling job market confidence that results can be managed with relative ease. For example, despite seeing payment delayed to 1.3 million workers, and 800,000 employees locked out, confidence in the job market recovered within a month of the 2013 shutdown, and GDP growth slowed only 0.1–0.2%. Still, the loss of GDP from a shutdown is a bigger sum than it would cost to keep the government open.However, the complete effects of a shutdown are often clouded by missing data that cannot be collected while specific government offices are closed.Additionally, some effects of the shutdown are difficult to directly measure, and are thought to cause residual impacts in the months following a shutdown. Some examples include destroyed scientific studies, lack of investment, and deferred maintenance costs.The exact details of which government functions stop during a shutdown is determined by the Office of Management and Budget. "Emergency personnel" continue to be employed, including the active duty (Title 10) military, federal law enforcement agents, doctors and nurses working in federal hospitals, and air traffic controllers. For the Department of Defense, at least half of the civilian workforce, and the full-time, dual-status military technicians in the US National Guard and traditional Guardsmen (those on Title 32 status) are furloughed and not paid while the shutdown is in effect. Members of Congress continue to be paid, because their pay cannot be altered except by direct law. Mail delivery is not affected as it is self-funded and the funds are not appropriated by Congress. Programs that are funded by laws other than annual appropriations acts (like Social Security) may also be affected by a funding gap, if program execution relies on activities that receive annually appropriated funding.Shutdowns in the past have also affected the Washington, D.C. municipal government, closing schools and suspending utilities such as garbage collection.

List of federal shutdowns

This list includes only funding gaps that led to actual employee furloughs. Not all funding gaps have led to shutdowns, even after the Civiletti opinions of 1980 and 1981. For example, a brief funding gap in 1982 did not involve furloughs, with nonessential workers told to report to work but to cancel meetings and not perform their ordinary duties; a three-day funding gap in November 1983 reportedly led to no disruption to government services; and in 1984 it was considered rare for a funding gap to cause federal employees to be actually ordered to cease work. Similarly, a 9-hour funding gap on Friday, February 9, 2018 (related to the January 2018 shutdown) did not lead to any workers furloughed or government services disrupted.


On May 1, 1980, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was shut down for one day after Congress failed to pass an appropriations bill for the agency. It occurred just days after the issuance of Civiletti's opinion on April 25. This was the first time a federal agency shut down due to a budget dispute. Federal Marshals were deployed to some FTC facilities to enforce the shutdown. 1,600 workers were furloughed, and the shutdown cost $700,000.

1981, 1984, and 1986

In 1981, 1984, and 1986, thousands of federal employees were furloughed for a period of half a day to one day, due to Ronald Reagan, the US President at the time, opposing bills that went against what he required. The first shutdown during his term in office was on November 23, 1981, in which 241,000 federal employees were furloughed for one day. The shutdown occurred because Reagan vetoed a spending bill that contained a smaller set of spending cuts than he had proposed. The shutdown was estimated to cost taxpayers $80–90 million in back pay and other expenses, though not all government departments were shut down during the funding gap.The second shutdown occurred on October 4, 1984, in which 500,000 federal employees were furloughed for one afternoon. This shutdown was due to Reagan opposition to the inclusion of a water projects package and a civil rights measure within the spending bill, forcing Congress to remove these the following day, while receiving a compromise through the inclusion for funding of the Nicaraguan Contras. The shutdown only covered nine out of the 13 appropriations bills that had not been passed at that point. Back pay was estimated at $65 million.The third shutdown occurred on October 17, 1986, in which 500,000 federal employees were furloughed for one afternoon over a wide range of issues. The cost was estimated at $62 million in lost work.


The shutdown of 1990 occurred over Columbus Day weekend, from October 6 to October 8. The shutdown stemmed from the fact that a deficit reduction package negotiated by President George H. W. Bush contained tax increases, despite his campaign promise of "read my lips: no new taxes", leading to a revolt led by then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich that defeated the initial appropriations package. Because the shutdown occurred over a weekend, its effects were lessened, with the National Parks and the Smithsonian museums being the most visible closures during this period, while around 2,800 workers were furloughed, costing the government $2.57 million in lost revenue and back wages.


Between 1995 to 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton conflicted with the Republican Party, led by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, leading to the United States dealing with two government shutdowns as a result. The conflict between the two parties were over funding for Medicare, education, and the environment, with public health being an additional subject of contention within the 1996 federal budget. The first shutdown began on November 14, after Clinton vetoed the spending bill the Republican-controlled Congress sent him. Around 800,000 workers were furloughed for five days before the shutdown ended on November 19.The second shutdown began on December 16, 1995. 284,000 workers were furloughed for 21 days, until the shutdown was ended on January 6, 1996.


The shutdown of 2013 took place during October, and lasted for 16 days. The deadlock was centered over a political fight between the Republican-led House of Representatives and President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Senate, over the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014 and other political issues. While the Republicans, encouraged by conservative senators such as Ted Cruz, alongside conservative groups such as Heritage Action, offered several continuing resolutions with language delaying or defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as "Obamacare"), the Democrats sought to pass several amended continuing resolutions for maintaining funding at then-current sequestration levels with no additional conditions. The fight led to a budget impasse which threatened massive disruption.On October 1, 2013, the shutdown occured, with approximately 800,000 federal employees furloughed, and an additional 1.3 million required to report to work without known payment dates. The deadlock between the two political parties lasted for sixteen days, Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014 on the evening of October 16, with Obama signing it shortly after midnight on October 17. The result of this ending the shutdown, while also suspending the country's debt limit until February 7, 2014.


Between 2018 and 2019, the US government faced two major shutdowns, both within President Donald Trump's term in office. While the first focused on an argument between Democratic and Republican senators over the issue of immigration, the second focused on an argument between Democrats and both Trump and Republicans over border security and funding for a proposed new wall between the United States and Mexico.

January 2018

The first shutdown began on January 20, 2018. The deadlock occurred following the results of Senate vote over the government's upcoming budget, in which both parties argued over the issue of immigration - while the Democratic senators insisted upon funding of DACA to be addressed in the budget, Republicans refused to include it on the grounds that the deadline for discussing this and immigration was not until mid-March. A vote held on the proposed bill for the US budget failed to achieve the majority of 60 votes required for it to pass, after the majority of Democrats voted against it. The result of the vote triggered a deadlock between the two parties, with the shutdown occurring on January 20 at midnight EST.

Approximately 692,000 workers were furloughed as a direct result, over a period of three days, before a proposed stopgap measure to fund the government for four weeks was approved by the House of Representatives, reopening the US government on 23 January. In the aftermath of the event, there was a February 9 spending gap, but it did not lead to any workers being furloughed as it was resolved overnight.

December 2018–January 2019

The second shutdown began on December 22, 2018, and became the longest in US history on 12 January 2019 after surpassing the 21-day shutdown of 1995–1996. The deadlock occurred when Trump sought to include $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall as part of the US government's spending budget, but faced objections from Democrats over questions on the effectiveness of the proposed wall and the amount required to fund it. A senate vote on the proposed spending bill failed to secure a majority vote to pass it through to Congress, with Trump unable to secure support for the bill by January 2019, knowing that when the Democrats took control of Congress that month following the mid-term elections in 2018, they would effectively block further attempts for funding.

Approximately 420,000 federal workers were required to work without pay, while the remainder were furloughed. The extended shutdown raised considerable financial uncertainty for federal workers, prompting some of those who had to work to call in sick and either find other paid work, or to protest against the shutdown, while concerns were raised over the consequences being brought forth, including sharp reductions in SNAP payments and delays towards completing tax refunds worth around $140 billion. Although Trump had two options by 4 January 2019 to end the deadlock - declare a national emergency to bypass Congressional approval for the new border wall, or prolong the shutdown to force Democrats to support funding for it - both had issues if chosen: invoking a national emergency had the potential to face a legal battle from Democrats over the use of such executive powers, while prolonging the shutdown risked his administration facing mounting pressure and increasing the severity of the damage to the US economy.After the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, Trump faced refusal to allow for funding on the border wall from Democrats Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader. A meeting between the three failed to end the deadlock, as Trump refused to discuss ending the shutdown when both Pelosi and Schumer refused to provide the funding he requested. Both parties held televised addresses on January 8, in which Trump sought out support from the nation for a new border wall, while Pelosi and Schumer issued a critical response against it and the extended shutdown. On January 10, Trump reasserted his belief that Mexico would pay for the new wall by stating it would be done through the new trade bill he had arranged in 2018 to replace NAFTA, but critics raised questions over the plausibility of his assertions if Congress approved the bill.As of January 19, 2019, the 2018–2019 United States government shutdown is in its 29th day.

State and territorial governments

County governments

See also

Loss of supply

Budget deficit

Fiscal policy

Generational accounting



Deficit hawk

Taxation in the United States

Fiscal policy in the United States

National debt by U.S. presidential terms

Starve the beast

United States federal budget

United States public debt

Appropriations bill (United States)


External links

Congressional Research Service: Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects

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