The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


History Behind the Headlines: Government Shutdowns

The government shutdown will become the longest in US history if it persists through Saturday. With President Trump and the Democrat-controlled House at loggerheads over the issue of funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border, roughly 800,000 federal employees are either furloughed or working without pay. But while funding disputes have occurred as long as the United States government has existed, the extension of these disagreements into government shutdowns is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the early days of the Republic, the administrative state of the federal government was tiny, with institutions built ad hoc as needed and then shuttered after they had served their purpose. But while the American state grew and changed over the 19th century, it expanded dramatically in the 20th century. With the increasing dominance of industrialization and globalization, the American people increasingly asked the government to help address the problematic side-effects. Warfare and welfare became two main pillars of American state building in the 20th century, and problems in both spheres helped accumulate a much bigger administrative state.

With this enlarged state, government fights over spending grew fiercer and appropriation bill deadlines were missed in the process. The 1974 Budget Reform Act gave us the budgetary system we have today with a centralized Congressional budget process. It also laid the groundwork for the origin of government shutdowns in 1980.

In 1980 Benjamin Civiletti, Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General, declared that federal agencies that continued to work without congressional appropriations violated federal law. He based this idea on the 1870 Antideficiency Act, which sought to prevent government agencies from entering into contracts without have the money to honor them (a significant problem during the Civil War). This 1981 article from the Washington Post examines how Civiletti reinterpreted the 1870 law.

For the next fifteen years under Reagan and H.W. Bush, government shutdowns rarely lasted for more than an afternoon. This changed in 1995 when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. 

Hear more about the 1995 shutdown, funding disputes in the small early American government, and the uniqueness of US government shutdowns in this Here & Now segment featuring BackStory’s Joanne Freeman and Brian Balogh.