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Closed for business? Government shutdown history

Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013 10:49 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
The sun shines Jan. 4, 1996, on the still-closed Washington Monument as the federal budget impasse continued in Washington. The potential for a shutdown is a quirk of American history. So if you're tired of blaming tea party Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some responsibility on the Founding Fathers, Jimmy Carter, and Newt Gingrich.

WASHINGTON – OK, gridlocked politicians we’re used to. But why padlock the Statue of Liberty?

You don’t see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants home just because their political parties can’t get along. Belgian civil servants, for example, carried on nicely for a year and a half while their politicians bickered over forming a new government.

A history of government shutdowns, American-style:

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.

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.

Congress responded with the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who spend money Congress hasn’t OK’d face disciplinary action, ranging from hours stuck in budget training to prison time. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

1900s: A delicate balance.

The Anti-Deficiency Act seems clear. But Congress sent mixed messages. Lawmakers routinely failed to pass most of each year’s dozen or so appropriations bills on time. Usually lawmakers would smooth that over with a short-term money approval, called a “continuing resolution.”

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.

1980: An inconvenient truth.

This look-the-other-way system worked for decades. Until the Carter administration.

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’ll 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 and sent 1,600 workers packing, apparently the first agency 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.

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 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 federal workers home 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. The estimated cost: more than $80 million.

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.

1995-96: The real thing.

Cue President Bill Clinton and Gingrich.

Two big men with big ideas and big 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 shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, were the longest ever. Serious issues were at stake – the future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid for the poor, the budget deficit. But they got lost in the absurdities.

The shutdowns didn’t save money; they cost millions. And despite all the buildup, most of government didn’t close because of complexities of the budget and exemptions for essential workers.

The tone was set when a huffy Gingrich suggested he had steered the government to a standstill because Clinton relegated him to the back door of Air Force One on an overseas trip. The public tantrum delighted Democrats and cartoonists alike.

The president was judged to have “won” the tussle. Republicans took a drubbing in the polls. But faith in government may have been the biggest loser.

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