overnment shutdown sign at Mount Rainier National Park in 2013. / Mount Rainier National Park / CC BY 2.0

Without a spending bill, the United States government will shut down by the end of this week. As Congressional leaders and the White House desperately attempt to put together a funding bill, it is worth looking back on past government shutdowns to see what lessons we can draw.

Early shutdowns

Before 1980 funding gaps did not lead to government shutdowns and federal employees continued to work. However, in 1980 Attorney General Civiletti issued two opinions which clarified that non-essential federal employees could not work if Congress has not appropriated the funds to compensate them.

This opinion stemmed from article 1 section 9 of the Constitution which states,

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

Between 1980 and 1995, government shutdowns were short affairs brought about by an impasse in Congress or a conflict between the Congress and the President. Shutdowns or partial-shutdowns lasted one day or less, the exception being the 1990 shutdown over the Columbus day weekend.

During a government shutdown, non-essential federal employees are furloughed. National parks and monuments, the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC are closed, and most permitting processes are halted. National security, military, and postal workers continue to work during a shutdown.

The Antideficiency Act makes it a crime for non-essential federal employees to work during a government shutdown.

The Gingrich shutdown

In 1995 a new wave of Congressional Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress, ending the Democrats’ eight-year control of the Senate and 40-year control of the House. Congressional leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich viewed their historic victory as a mandate to enact legislation that aligned with their fiscally conservative beliefs.

In addition to reducing spending, Congressional Republicans’ budget would have curtailed the President’s regulatory powers, reduced appeals for death row inmates, and raised Medicare part B costs.

President Clinton opposed their budget, eventually leading to two shutdowns. The first for five days in November 1995 and the second for 22 days between December 16, 1995, and January 6, 1996.

At the end of the ordeal, Congress and the President ultimately came together and passed a budget which would eventually balance the budget through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Although both sides came to a compromise, it was Speaker Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans that were blamed for the shutdown.

The Tea Party shutdown

The next government shutdown occurred from October 1 to October 17, 2013. Once again it was Congressional Republicans who led the charge for a government shutdown over funding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

A week before the shutdown, Senator Ted Cruz led the ideological charge in favor of a government shutdown over funding for the Affordable Care Act. Cruz and other tea party-aligned Republican Senators led a 21-hour debate on the Senate floor against Obamacare.

In the days leading up to October 1, Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans continued to send funding bills to the Democratic-controlled Senate with language to delay or defund Obamacare. The Senate would send a bill without that language back to the House. This ping-pong match between the chambers of Congress continued without either side budging.

It was clear from the outset that the shutdown was a result of Congressional Republicans insistence that funding of Obamacare be tied to general government funding. Because of this, Republicans were widely blamed for the 16-day shutdown.

Who will take the blame this time?

The most critical difference between the 1995/1996 and 2013 shutdowns and today is that the federal government is unified under a single party. In the 1990s Republicans controlled both the House and Senate while Democrats had President Clinton. In 2013 Republicans, many of whom came to office riding the tea party wave of 2010, controlled the House, while Democrats retained control of the Senate and Presidency.

Today Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House. This unified control should mean that a shutdown is impossible since a budget bill could be passed by Congress simply on a party-line vote.

However, the GOP itself is not a unified, functioning whole.

While Congressional leaders have at times appeared close to a budget deal, President Donald Trump routinely has thrown sand in the gears.

While Congressional Democrats may have been willing to support a funding bill, any hope of bipartisan support ended after the White House hardened its stance on immigration reform.

Democrats are still furious over the reversal by the White House to support legislation providing some protection to recipients of DACA, an Obama-era policy that shielded immigrants brought illegally to the US as children from deportation.

The White House appeared to forgo using DACA as a bargaining chip to instead try to use it to blame Democrats for a potential government shutdown.

Earlier this week, President Trump tweeted,

“The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security. The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding Military, at a time we need it more than ever. We need a merit based system of immigration, and we need it now! No more dangerous Lottery.”

With less than 48 hours before the government shuts down, Trump fired off two more tweets undercutting efforts by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel to unite their party.

“CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!” tweeted the President Thursday morning. Shortly thereafter, Trump sent out another tweet saying, “A government shutdown will be devastating to our military… something the Dems care very little about!”

Congressional leaders and White House officials worked tirelessly around the clock in the days leading up to a government shutdown. This was true in 1995, 1996, and 2013 as well as the many near misses in recent years.

We can expect to see even more scrambling and meetings in Washington up through Friday night when government funding runs out. Should their efforts to avert a government shutdown fail, the question on everyone’s mind will be “Who will be the American people blame this time?”