Timeline: Government shutdown history

The idea of a government shutdown is a quirk of American history. Scroll through our timeline for a look back in time at government shutdowns. Read full coverage of the 2013 government shutdown.(The Associated Press contributed to this report)


1789: Balance of powers
The framers of the Constitution gave Congress control over spending as a way to limit the power of the presidency. The government can only spend money "in consequence of appropriations made by law," or in other words, after Congress says so and with the president's signature.

(Thinkstock Photo)
1800s: Power struggles
Turns out it's not easy to shoo federal bureaucrats away from the piggy bank.

When they wanted to spend more than Congress gave, the War Department and other agencies ordered stuff on credit. Then they would go to Congress seeking an appropriation to pay the bills. Lawmakers felt obliged to cover the government's debts, but they weren't happy about it. The executive branch was undermining Congress's power of the purse. Congress responded with a series of laws that eventually got one of those dreadful Washington monikers: the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who mistakenly spend money Congress hasn't OK'd face disciplinary action, ranging from firing to hours stuck in mind-numbing budget training. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

But willful overspending is a crime that carries the threat of fines and two years in prison.

(File Photo)
1900s: A delicate balance
The Anti-Deficiency Act seems clear. But as usual, Congress sent mixed messages. Lawmakers routinely failed to pass most of each year's dozen or so appropriations bills on time. Sometimes agencies went a full year without a budget. Usually lawmakers would smooth that over with a short-term money approval, called a "continuing resolution" in Washington-speak.

Sometimes Congress couldn't even agree on those: Stopgap resolutions got tangled up for days or a couple of weeks in political fights over matters such as abortion, foreign aid or congressional pay raises. Sort of like the current fight over health care.

But government agencies didn't shut down and Cabinet secretaries weren't led away in handcuffs.

Agency chiefs might delay workers' pay and put items such as travel and new contracts on hold. But they assumed Congress didn't want them to turn off the lights and go home. Eventually lawmakers would cough up a spending bill to retroactively paper over the funding gap.

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
1980: An inconvenient truth
A stickler for the rules, Carter asked his attorney general to look into the Anti-Deficiency Act. In April 1980, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued a startling opinion. "The legal authority for continued operations either exists or it does not," he wrote.

When it does not, government must send employees home. They can't work for free or with the expectation that they will be paid someday.

What's more, Civiletti declared, any agency chief who broke that law would be prosecuted.

Five days later, funding for the Federal Trade Commission expired amid a congressional disagreement over limiting the agency's powers. The FTC halted operations, canceled court dates and meetings, and sent 1,600 workers packing, apparently the first agency ever closed by a budget dispute.

Embarrassed lawmakers made a quick fix. The FTC reopened the next day. The estimated cost of the brouhaha: $700,000.

(AP Graphics Bank)
1981-1990: Playing chicken
Republican Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981 with a promise to cut taxes and shrink government, setting up a showdown with Democrats who ran the House.

High noon came early on Monday, Nov. 23, 1981.

The government had technically been without money all weekend, but Congress approved emergency spending to keep it running. That morning, Reagan wielded his first veto. He was making a stand against "budget-busting policies," the president declared, sending confused federal workers streaming out of offices in Washington and across the nation.

It was the first government shutdown. But it lasted only hours. By that afternoon, Congress approved a three-week spending extension more to Reagan's liking. Workers returned Tuesday morning. The estimated cost: more than $80 million.

The pattern was set. Over his two terms, Reagan and congressional Democrats would regularly argue to the brink of shutdown, and twice more they sent workers home for a half-day.

President George H.W. Bush used the tactic only once, during the budget wrangling that punctured his "no new taxes" pledge.

Shutdown threats were becoming ho-hum, just more Washington games.

(AP Graphics Bank)
1995-96: The real thing
Cue President Bill Clinton and Gingrich.

Two big men with big ideas and big-time egos, the Democratic president and the Republican House speaker charged into a cage match and ended up wrestling the U.S. government to the ground. Twice.

These two shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, were the longest ever. Until now they were assumed to have taught politicians the folly of ever again powering down the world's most powerful government. Maybe not.

Serious issues were at stake in 1995 -- the future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid for the poor, the budget deficit.

(AP Graphics Bank)
2013: And again.
The Republican-run House and Democratic-led Senate were unable to reach an agreement over a continuing resolution that would fund the government. So, we rang in the fiscal new year with a government shutdown.

Federal agencies, national parks and Smithsonian museums were all closed. Many federal employees reported to work Oct. 1 to close up shop, turn around and go home on furlough.

On Oct. 1 with a partial shutdown in effect, the House proposed three bills that would partially reopen the government. None passed in the Senate.

The shutdown of 2013 came to a close on Wednesday, Oct. 16, after 16 days. Congress agreed on a deal to fund the government through Jan. 15, 2014.

(Photo: Shefali Kapadia/Federal News Radio)
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