In United States politics, “government shutdowns” occur whenever Congress fails to pass or the president of the United States refuses to sign or vetoes legislation funding the operation of some or all government agencies. Under the Antideficiency Act of 1982, the federal government must “shut down” the affected agencies by both furloughing non-essential personnel and curtailing agency activities and services that do not directly relate to national security.
- Government shutdowns happen when legislation to allocate money needed for the operation of the government agencies fails to be enacted.
- By law, most government agencies must furlough their non-essential personnel and stop or limit their activities during a government shutdown.
- While few last very long, all government shutdowns result in increased costs of government and inconvenience for many citizens.
While most government shutdowns are of relatively short duration, they all result in the disruption to government services and increased costs to the government—and thus taxpayers—due to lost labor. According to the financial rating agency Standard & Poor’s, the 16-day shutdown from October 1–17, 2013, had “taken $24 billion out of the economy,” and “shaved at least 0.6 percent off annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth.”
The many government shutdowns have done little to help Congress’ abysmal approval ratings. There were five shutdowns ranging from eight to 17 days in the late 1970s, but the duration of government shutdowns shrank dramatically beginning in the 1980s.
And then there was the government shutdown in late 1995; that lasted three weeks and sent nearly 300,000 government workers home without paychecks. The gridlock came during President Bill Clinton’s administration. The dispute between the Democrats and the Republicans was over disparate economic forecasts and whether the Clinton White House budget would result in a deficit or not.
Occasionally, both Congress and presidents use government shutdowns as a way of accomplishing political goals not directly related to larger budgetary concerns like reducing the national debt or deficit. For example, in 2013, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives forced a lengthy shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to get Democratic President Barack Obama to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The Border Wall Shutdown of 2019
The third shutdown during the Donald Trump presidency began at midnight on December 22, 2018, when funding for nearly a quarter of the federal government ran out.
The shutdown was triggered when Congress and President Trump were unable to agree on the inclusion in the spending bill of some $5.7 billion requested by President Trump for the construction of an additional section of immigration security wall or fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico. According to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the $5.7 billion requested by President Trump would allow for the addition of about 234 miles of steel fencing to 580 miles already in place, leaving about 1,140 miles of the 1,954 mile-long border still not fenced.
In a televised address to the nation on January 8, 2019, President Trump warned that unless Congress agreed to include the funding, he would declare a national emergency allowing him to bypass Congress by diverting existing funds intended for other purposes to build the wall. However, after a meeting between Trump and House and Senate Democratic leaders on January 9 failed to reach a compromise, the shutdown continued.
At midnight on Saturday, January 12, 2019, the 22-day-long shutdown became the longest in U.S. history. An estimated 800,000 federal employees—including Border Patrol officers, TSA agents, and air traffic controllers—were either working without pay or had been sent home on unpaid furlough.
Though Congress had passed a bill on January 11 ensuring that unpaid employees would receive full back pay after the shutdown ended, that end remained nowhere in sight.
On January 19, the 29th day of the shutdown, President Trump offered Democrats a deal to end it. In return for congressional approval of a $7 billion border security package, including $5.7 billion for the border wall, the president offered to extend for three years the DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
DACA is an expired Obama-era policy allowing eligible persons who entered the United States illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the U.S.
Democrats quickly rejected the proposal, arguing that it did not offer a permanent renewal of the DACA program and still included funding for the border wall. Democrats again refused to further talks until President Trump ended the government shutdown.
By January 24, the then 34-day-long partial government was costing U.S. taxpayers more than $86 million a day in back pay promised to more than 800,000 furloughed workers, according to Government Executive magazine, based on salary data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Agreement Temporarily Reopens Government
In at least a temporary solution, President Trump, on January 25, announced that he had struck a deal with Democratic leaders in Congress to allow the government to reopen until February 15 without including funding for the construction of any additional border barrier. Negotiations of border wall funding were to continue during the three-week period.
The President stressed that a border wall remained a necessity for national security and that if Congress did not agree to fund it by the February 15 deadline, he either reinstate the government shutdown or declare a national emergency allowing existing funds to be used for the purpose.
Shutdown Averted, but National Emergency Declared
On February 15, 2019, President Trump signed a compromise Homeland Security spending bill averting another shutdown.
However, the bill provided only $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new border fencing, far short of the $5.7 billion he had requested for 234 miles of new solid steel walls. At the same time, the president declared a national emergency redirecting $3.5 billion from the Defense Department’s military construction budget to the construction of new border wall, and signed executive orders redirecting $600 million from the Treasury Department’s drug forfeiture fund, and $2.5 billion from the Defense Department’s drug interdiction program for the same purpose.
A Fourth Trump Wall Shutdown Loomed
On March 11, 2019, President Trump sent Congress a $4.7 trillion spending proposal for the government’s 2020 budget that included another $8.6 billion for U.S.-Mexico border wall construction. Bringing the threat of a fourth government shutdown of the Trump presidency, Democratic lawmakers immediately vowed to block further border wall funding.
In a joint statement, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reminded the president of the “widespread chaos” that had “hurt millions of Americans” during the 34-day border wall shutdown from December 22, 2018, to January 24, 2019. “The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again. We hope he learned his lesson,” wrote Pelosi and Schumer. By law, Congress had until October 1, 2019, to approve the 2020 budget.
More Recent Major Government Shutdowns
The most recent government major shutdowns before 2018 came in the 1996 fiscal year, during the Clinton administration.
- The first government shutdown of the Clinton administration lasted five full days from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19, 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service. Some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed during that shutdown.
- The second government shutdown was the longest government shutdown lasted 21 full days from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. Some 284,000 government workers were furloughed and another 475,000 worked without pay, according to the Congressional Research Service.
List of All Government Shutdowns and Their Duration
This list of government shutdowns in the past was drawn from Congressional Research Service reports:
- 2018-2019 (President Donald Trump): December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019 – 34 days
- 2018 (President Donald Trump): January 20 to January 23 – 3 days
- 2018 (President Donald Trump): February 9 – 1 day.
- 2013 (President Barack Obama): October 1 to October. 17 – 16 days
- 1995-1996 (President Bill Clinton): December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996, – 21 days
- 1995 (President Bill Clinton): Nov. 14 to 19 – 5 days
- 1990 (President George H.W. Bush): October 5 to 9 – 3 days
- 1987 (President Ronald Reagan): December 18 to December 20 – 1 day
- 1986 (President Ronald Reagan): October 16 to October 18 – 1 day
- 1984 (President Ronald Reagan): October 3 to October 5 – 1 day
- 1984 (President Ronald Reagan): September 30 to October 3 – 2 days
- 1983 (President Ronald Reagan): November 10 to November 14 – 3 days
- 1982 (President Ronald Reagan): December 17 to December 21 – 3 days
- 1982 (President Ronald Reagan): September 30 to October 2 – 1 day
- 1981 (President Ronald Reagan): November 20 to November 23 – 2 days
- 1979 (President Jimmy Carter): September 30 to October 12 – 11 days
- 1978 (President Jimmy Carter): September 30 to October 18 18 days
- 1977 (President Jimmy Carter): November 30 to December 9 – 8 days
- 1977 (President Jimmy Carter): October 31 to November 9 – 8 days
- 1977 (President Jimmy Carter): September 30 to October 13 – 12 days
- 1976 (President Gerald Ford): September 30 to October 11 – 10 days