The History of Federal Government Shutdowns

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Background

The routine activities of most federal agencies are funded annually by one or more of the regular appropriations acts. When action on the regular appropriations acts is delayed, a continuing appropriations act, also sometimes referred to as a continuing resolution or CR, may be used to provide interim budget authority.1

Since FY1952, all of the regular appropriations acts have been enacted by the beginning of the fiscal year in only four instances (FY1977, FY1989, FY1995, and FY1997). No CRs were enacted for three of these fiscal years, but CRs were enacted for FY1977 to fund certain unauthorized programs whose funding had been dropped from the regular appropriations acts.2 Further, no CRs were enacted for FY1953, even though all but one of the regular appropriations was enacted after the start of the fiscal year.3

The Antideficiency Act (31 U.S.C. 1341-1342, 1511-1519) generally bars the obligation or expenditure of federal funds in the absence of appropriations.4 Exceptions under the act include activities involving “the safety of human life or the protection of property.”5 The interval during the fiscal year when appropriations for a particular project or activity are not enacted into law, either in the form of a regular appropriations act or a CR, is referred to as a funding gap.6

Although funding gaps may occur at the start of the fiscal year, they may also occur any time a CR expires and another CR (or the relevant regular appropriations bill) is not enacted immediately thereafter. Multiple funding gaps may occur within a fiscal year.

In 1980 and early 1981, then Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued opinions clarifying the need for the federal government to begin terminating regular activities upon the occurrence of a funding gap.7 As a consequence of these more strict guidelines, when a funding gap occurs, executive agencies begin a shutdown of the affected projects and activities, which includes the prompt furlough of non-excepted personnel. The general practice of the federal government after the shutdown has ended has been to retroactively pay furloughed employees for the time they missed, as well as employees who were required to come to work.

Funding Gaps Since FY1977

…As illustrated in Table 1, there have been 18 funding gaps since FY1977.10 The enactment of a CR on the day after the budget authority in the previous CR expired, which has occurred often, is not counted in this report as involving a funding gap. For example, between FY2000-FY2013, “next-day” CRs were enacted 18 times.

Almost all of the funding gaps occurred between FY1977 and FY1995. During this 19-fiscal-year period, 15 funding gaps occurred. 

Multiple funding gaps occurred during a single fiscal year in four instances: (1) three gaps covering a total of 28 days in FY1978, (2) two gaps covering a total of four days in FY1983, (3) two gaps covering a total of three days in FY1985, and (4) two gaps covering a total of 26 days in FY1996. S

Seven of the funding gaps commenced with the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1. The remaining 11 funding gaps occurred at least more than one day after the fiscal year had begun. Ten of the funding gaps ended in October, four ended in November, three ended in December, and one ended in January.

Funding gaps have ranged in duration from one to 21 full days. Six of the eight lengthiest funding gaps, lasting between eight days and 17 days, occurred between FY1977 and FY1980—before the Civiletti opinions were issued in 1980 and early 1981. After the issuance of these opinions, the duration of funding gaps in general shortened considerably, typically ranging from one day to three days. Of these, most occurred over a weekend.
Congressional Research Service

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