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Then and Now: The Truth About Government Shutdowns

Capitol

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

In a rare weekend session at the Capitol, the House of Representatives works into the night to pass a bill to fund the government, Saturday, September 28, 2013.

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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.

A 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.

Appropriations bills are about money, and they are supposed to be solely about money. In the House of Representatives, the chamber’s own rules forbid the insertion of legislative issues on appropriations measures. Such legislative language only expands the potential for controversy, and such controversy may well lead to gridlock. So the key to the success of a continuing resolution is to reduce controversy and find compromise that will allow negotiations to take place on a longer-term solution.

That is the path that the House of Representatives took in late September 1995, as the fiscal year was ending and no appropriations were in place for the fiscal year that would begin on October 1. But by November 15, the House, under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), was becoming impatient. The House not only demanded reducing funding levels below those of current operations but also attached a rider that was completely outside the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee: They demanded a $284-per-year increase in the Medicare Part B premium.

President Clinton threatened that he would veto such a continuing resolution, and on November 14, he did.

That precedent is in many ways similar to the tactic that the House of Representatives is using in the current budget standoff. Both involve injecting unrelated policy matter into a funding resolution in hopes of using a shutdown as leverage for a policy it could not otherwise enact. It must be said, however, that the magnitude of the 1995 rider was relatively small compared to what is being demanded as the price for maintaining government services in the current standoff.

Finally, what price did the American people pay for past shutdowns? Estimates following the 1995 shutdowns placed the cost at $1.4 billion, but later analyses have considerably upped the cost. Issues not addressed in the earlier estimates included:

  • The interest payment the government was required to make to third-party vendors under the terms of the Prompt Payment Act
  • Denial of basic and important services to the American people
  • Delay in providing beneficiaries payments to which they were entitled
  • Severe demoralization of the federal workforce and the loss of talented workers to the private sector
  • Loss of contract oversight and actions by the federal government to recover from nonperformance on federal purchases
  • Failure to collect tax revenues due to the federal government as a result of diminished enforcement capabilities

One could also add to that list the loss of confidence that occurs both in this country and around the world when the United States is incapable of resolving basic issues and demonstrating that its government is able to at least provide the basic services available to the citizens of any economically and politically developed country. That makes it more difficult to persuade investors to take risks on U.S. enterprises and for consumers to be willing to make the purchases necessary to allow this economy to grow.

It is clear that those in the House who are advocating this shutdown are not only misrepresenting this country’s experience with shutdowns but do not actually understand that history. If they did, they would be taking immediate steps to reopen the federal government.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Lilly was the Democratic staff director on the House Appropriations Committee during the 1995–1996 government shutdowns. 

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