History Stories

The president and Congress clashed over welfare, crime, defense spending and whether to fund Contras in Nicaragua.

Most government shutdowns happen over hot button issues where the Democratic and Republican parties strongly disagree—abortion in the 1970s, Medicaid and Medicare in the ‘90s; and Obamacare, DACA and a “border wall” in the 21s century. Similarly, the record eight shutdowns that happened during Ronald Reagan’s presidency highlighted some of the biggest political battles of the 1980s, from funding for people on welfare to the Iran-Contra affair.

1. The fight over domestic vs. defense spending: November 20 to 23, 1981

The first shutdown where a large portion of the government actually stopped functioning came in 1981, when Reagan furloughed 241,000 of the government's 2.1 million employees without pay.

This shutdown concerned what’s known as “Reaganomics.” Reagan had campaigned on a platform of cutting domestic spending without hurting Cold War defense funding, and that’s exactly what this shutdown was over. On one side, Reagan wanted to cut domestic spending by several billion dollars; and on the other, the Democrat-controlled House wanted more defense cuts and higher wages for members of Congress and senior civil servants.

In the end, Congress and Reagan worked out a temporary bill to give them more time to work out a long-term spending plan. This was technically the seventh government shutdown over a spending bill disagreement, but the first to impact federal workers on a large scale.

Tammy Wynette singing to President Ronald Reagan during a barbecue for members of Congress on the South Lawn in 1982.

Tammy Wynette singing to President Ronald Reagan during a barbecue for members of Congress on the South Lawn in 1982.

2. Democrats decide not to ‘stand by their man’: September 30 to October 2, 1982

Reagan’s first 1982 shutdown didn’t happen over a major political issue, but the reason behind it is very 1980s. The reason Reagan and Congress didn’t reach a budget agreement on September 30 was because they all had social functions they needed to get to.

Democrats in Congress had scheduled $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner far in advance for that night, and Reagan had also invited all of Congress to a White House BBQ on the same evening. This did cause some tensions between Congressional Democrats and Reagan; the Democrats were angry he’d scheduled his party on the same night as theirs, and were worried that they’d lose guests to the president’s BBQ.

One of the featured guests at the White House BBQ was the country singer Tammy Wynette, who sang her hit “Stand By Your Man.” In his remarks that night, the president made an awkward joke about how he wished Congress would follow the advice of Wynette’s song: “I'm going to get a record of that and send it up to these ladies and gentlemen on the Hill, ‘Stand By Your Man.’ I like the whole idea.”

3. The battle over funding jobs vs. missiles: December 17 to 21, 1982

The government shut down again just two and a half months later, only this time it didn’t have to do with a busy social calendar. Just like the first Reagan shutdown, this one concerned a clash over funding for domestic spending vs. defense funds.

Congress wanted to fund public works programs to create jobs, and Reagan didn’t want to. What Reagan did want was to fund two Cold War weapons—the MX missile and the Pershing II missile—that Congress didn’t want to fund.

The spending bill that ended the shutdown didn’t end up funding either the jobs program or the missiles. It did, however, add funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a social program for the poor that Reagan had wanted to abolish.

President Ronald Reagan addressing the nation on his Strategic Defense Initiative.

President Ronald Reagan addressing the nation on his Strategic Defense Initiative.

4. Support for El Salvador’s rebels becomes a sticking point: November 10 to 14, 1983

Reagan’s 1983 shutdown involved more clashes over social programs vs. defense spending, with a twist of international relations thrown in. This shutdown came several months after Reagan announced his ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative. The defense plan required a lot of technology that didn’t exist, including space satellites that could divert incoming nuclear bombs with lasers. Critics poked fun at impractical plan by calling it the “Star Wars Initiative.”

It was in this context that House Democrats pushed to increase education spending and decrease defense spending—measures that Reagan predictably opposed. Congress’ proposed bill also cut funding for El Salvador, a country in which Reagan was deeply invested. Reagan believed that Salvadoran rebels fighting the country’s brutal government were supported by the Soviet Union, making them a communist threat.

The shutdown ended when House Democrats agreed to lower the amount of money for education and fund Reagan’s MX missile. However, the Democrats kept their other cuts to defense spending and funding for El Salvador.

5 & 6. Back-to-back crime and punishment shutdowns: September 30 to October 3, then October 3 to 5, 1984

Reagan’s fifth and sixth shutdowns happened over three big issues: crime, Title IX, and water projects. The crime bill, which Reagan ultimately got, was the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.

Passed during First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, the crime act raised the minimum penalties for crimes involving marijuana. It was a precursor to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that punished crack possession more harshly than cocaine possession, increasing the disproportionate incarceration of black people. Through laws like these, Reagan expanded on Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs.”

At the same time, Congress wanted to fund water projects and reverse a recent Supreme Court decision in Grove City College v. Bell that weakened Title IX protections for women in college—two measures that Reagan opposed. Congress and Reagan agreed to pass short-funding bill the give them extra time to settle these issues… But almost as soon as it started, the government shut down again because they still couldn’t agree on a bill.

To end that shutdown, Congress agreed to give Reagan his crime bill and scrap the Title IX and water projects measures. Congress still got to strengthen Title IX four years later when it passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which was meant to overturn Grove City College v. Bell. Reagan actually vetoed that bill, but Congress overruled his veto and passed it into law.

President Ronald Reagan participating in the "Up from Dependency" welfare reform panel discussion. 

President Ronald Reagan participating in the "Up from Dependency" welfare reform panel discussion. 

7. Welfare funding causes a two-day shutdown: October 16 to 18, 1986

In 1986, House Democrats wanted to expand government welfare, then called “Aid to Families With Dependent Children.” But Reagan and Senate Republicans opposed this. So the government shut down, in large part because of drastically differing party stances on welfare.

Reagan’s position was in line with his radically anti-welfare stance. He had campaigned for president by arguing that he would cut social programs that aided “Welfare Queens”—a racist caricature implying single black mothers were receiving benefits they didn’t deserve.

In his State of the Union speech that year, Reagan even spoke about government services as though they were a drug. He said that he wanted to help poor people “escape the spider's web of dependency,” and argued that welfare programs “degrade the moral worth of work, encourage family breakups and drive entire communities into a bleak and heartless dependency.”

In order to reopen the government, Democrats agreed that they would remove the part of the bill about welfare expansion but vote on it in the future.

8. Contras in Nicaragua inspire a scandal and a shutdown: December 18 to 20, 1987

Reagan’s last shutdown echoed the most controversial scandal of his career—the Iran-Contra Affair. In it, his administration illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The Contras were a group that Reagan had secretly had the CIA create to fight the country’s Sandinista government, which Reagan viewed as a communist Soviet ally.

Congress launched an investigation into the Iran-Contra Affair in January 1987. At the end of the year, the government shut down for the eighth time under Reagan because the Democrats—who now controlled both the House and the Senate—didn’t support Reagan’s desired funding for the Contras. To get the government running again, Congress agreed to supply non-lethal aid to the Contras.

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