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The Ghosts of Government Shutdowns Past

With the potential of a government shutdown looming, here’s a primer on the shutdowns of years past.
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Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan.

At midnight on Friday, April 28th, exactly one day before President Donald Trump celebrates his first 100 days in office, the United States political machine will run out of money — unless, of course, Congress passes a new bill to fund the government for the duration of the 2017 fiscal year. At the moment, reports suggest that lawmakers may pass a temporary stopgap bill, allowing them an extra week or two to reach a final agreement.

Leaders of both parties (but especially the GOP) say they’re determined to avert a shutdown, and have been optimistically working toward a compromise bill. Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed his optimism to CNN that Democrats and Republicans could collaborate to “avoid any kind of government shutdown scenario in the end of April.” Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seemed similarly hopeful that the two parties would reach a deal in time.

But, this being Trump-era Washington, D.C., nothing is certain. The GOP needs Democratic votes to pass a spending bill, and Democrats are saying they won’t sign a spending bill that includes any “poison pills,” i.e. funding for a border wall or a deportation force, or de-funding of sanctuary cities, Planned Parenthood, or the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies. Try as McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan might to avert a shutdown, the White House’s demands for border-wall funding have reportedly thrown a wrench in negotiations between the two parties.

Dramatic as it may be, this sort of bureaucratic spectacle is nothing new to American politics: The U.S. government has a pretty long history of failing to fund itself, although it wasn’t until the early 1980s that these spending gaps led to actual government shutdowns. In fact, during Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office, the government shut down a whopping eight times. In honor of next week’s looming funding deadline, what follows is a brief overview of the government shutdowns of yesteryear.

September 30th-October 11th, 1976—Gerald Ford

The very first government shutdown (although the government didn’t technically shut down) was prompted by Ford’s veto of a funding bill for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ford attributed his decision to out-of-control government spending, saying the bill didn’t do enough to rein in the federal government’s profligate ways. Congress overrode the veto on October 1st; a spending bill for the entire government was passed just 10 days later.

September 30th-October 13th, 1977; October 31st-November 9th, 1977; November 30th-December 9th, 1977—Jimmy Carter

Congress spent much of the fall of 1977 arguing about abortion — specifically, conservatives in the House wanted to continue the ban against allowing Medicaid to pay for abortion, except in cases in which the mother’s life was in danger. The House’s stance didn’t sit well with the Senate (though both houses were controlled by Democrats), which wanted to loosen the rules. The showdown was ultimately resolved in December with a compromise allowing Medicaid funds to cover abortion in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s health was in danger.

September 30th-October 18th, 1978—Jimmy Carter

This one was mostly over government spending — Carter was opposed to spending on a nuclear aircraft carrier and several public works projects — and, once again, abortion. The compromise bill included funding for the aircraft carrier, but excluded funding for the public works projects Carter had argued were wasteful. The previous year’s abortion compromise was allowed to stand.

September 30th-October 12th, 1979—Jimmy Carter

The shutdown of 1979 was prompted, once again, by abortion. The House still wanted Medicaid abortion funding to be limited to cases in which the mother’s life was in danger. The House also demanded a pay increase (of 5.5 percent) for members of Congress and some civil servants. The final bill granted the pay increases and slightly tightened up the abortion rules of previous years — Medicaid funds were permitted to cover abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life (but not her health) was in danger.

November 20th-23rd, 1981—Ronald Reagan

President Reagan vetoed a spending bill, on the grounds that it didn’t cut spending enough — at mid-day on the 23rd (a Monday), he signed a three-week stopgap measure to allow for ongoing negotiations.

September 30th-October 2nd, 1982—Ronald Reagan

Congress just didn’t quite get around to passing a spending bill in time. It’s kind of as simple as that.

December 17th-21st, 1982—Ronald Reagan

The Democrat-controlled House was opposed to the MX missile program (a priority of Reagan’s), and Reagan was opposed to spending on jobs programs that both houses of Congress wanted. The compromise bill included funding for neither the missile program, nor jobs programs. The bill did, however, include funding for legal services for low-income Americans (which Reagan had opposed), and for aid to Israel (a Reagan priority).

November 10th-14th, 1983—Ronald Reagan

Democrats in the house wanted more education spending and less foreign aid and defense spending. The bill Reagan ultimately signed included a slightly lower amount of education spending, as well as funding for the MX missile (the same one that caused the 1982 shutdown) — the Democrats, however, got their cuts to foreign aid and defense, as well as a prohibition on oil and gas leases in federal wildlife refuges.

September 30th-October 3rd, 1984; October 3rd-5th, 1984—Ronald Reagan

Reagan wanted more funding to fight crime, and was opposed to a proposed civil rights measure and spending on water projects. The compromise legislation eliminated both the civil rights changes and water project spending, but gave Reagan his crime program — a good year for the president.

October 16th-18th, 1986—Ronald Reagan

President Reagan and the Republican Senate were opposed to a number of the (Democrat-controlled) House’s requests, including an expansion to the welfare program and a buy/hire American requirement for offshore oil rigs. The Democrats dropped most of their request in exchange for the promise of a vote on welfare expansion.

December 18th-20th, 1987—Ronald Reagan

Reagan and Democrats were at odds over funding for Nicaraguan militants and the Federal Communications Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine.” The compromise bill dropped the Fairness Doctrine dispute and included non-lethal aid for Nicaragua.

October 5th–9th, 1990—George H. W. Bush

President Bush vetoed the spending bill on the grounds that it wasn’t accompanied by a plan for reducing the deficit (which he had demanded). He signed the spending bill after Congress came up with a deficit reduction plan.

November 13th-19th, 1995; December 5th, 1995-January 6th, 1996—Bill Clinton

In November, President Clinton vetoed the spending bill sent by Congress, citing a variety of reasons. The biggest issues to Clinton were the significant cuts to spending on entitlements, welfare, and other Clinton priorities that Republicans (led by Newt Gingrich) were demanding. Republicans (who controlled both houses of Congress) also wanted the president to commit to balancing the federal budget within seven years. On November 19th, Congress and Clinton agreed to a stopgap measure to allow negotiations to continue. But negotiations broke down by early December as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over which economic forecasting model (the Congressional Budget Office model, or the more-optimistic Office of Management and Budget model preferred by the White House) should be used in the balanced budget plan. In the face of fierce public opposition, the GOP finally relented and passed compromise legislation, which Clinton promptly signed.

October 1st–17th, 2013—Barack Obama

This is known widely as the Obamacare Shutdown. Tea Party politicians in the Republican-controlled House repeatedly included language de-funding or delaying the implementation of the controversial law, which were quickly rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Republicans eventually caved, in the face of public opposition, and agreed to a short-term bill (with minimal changes to Affordable Care Act funding), funding the government through January 15th, 2014.