In the United States, a government shutdown happens when there is a gap in federal funding and the government furloughs federal workers without pay. Although there are exceptions for certain “essential” employees (including the president and members of Congress, all of whom continue to receive pay) a shutdown means that a large portion of the federal government stops functioning.
Both shutdowns and federal funding gaps are modern phenomena. Funding gaps only began happening after Congress gave itself deadlines to pass federal budgets via the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. The first federal funding gap occurred two years later in 1976 when President Gerald Ford vetoed a bill to finance the Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare. After that, there were five more funding gaps under President Jimmy Carter. However, neither Ford nor Carter’s budget gaps triggered any shutdowns.
Carter’s attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, was the man who changed all that. In 1980 and 1981, he issued legal opinions arguing that when there is a gap in federal funding, the affected parts of the government needed to stop all non-essential functions. Since then, the government has shut down 10 times in response to funding gaps.
Here’s a breakdown of each shutdown.
1. November 20–23, 1981
President Ronald Reagan triggered the first government shutdown when he vetoed a funding bill because he thought it should have cut more from domestic spending. As a result, the U.S. government furloughed 241,000 federal employees. Like most of the early shutdowns, this one ended after only a few days.
2. September 30–October 2, 1982
The next year, Congress caused another shutdown by missing the deadline to pass a government spending bill, even though it had already agreed on the terms for the bill. The New York Times reported that Congress missed the deadline because both major parties had events they didn’t want to miss: Republicans were attending a White House barbecue and the Democrats had a fundraising dinner.
While Congress didn’t anticipate the funding gap would last long enough to trigger shutdown procedures, there was confusion about this and some agencies sent federal employees home. The next three funding gaps in 1982, 1983 and 1984 did not lead to federal shutdowns, but another one in 1984 did.
3. October 3–5, 1984
The U.S. government had two back-to-back funding gaps in 1984: one from September 30 to October 3, and another from October 3 to 5. Congress and President Reagan averted a shutdown during the first gap by passing a temporary extension, but then missed their new deadline again, triggering a brief, half-day shutdown in which the government furloughed around 500,000 employees.
Democrats conceded to many of Reagan’s demands in the bill that ended the shutdown. The bill included temporary funding for the Contras, a group the CIA had recruited and organized to fight the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
4. October 16–18, 1986
The 1986 shutdown played out much like the one in 1984: the government furloughed about 500,000 federal employees for half a day, and Democrats conceded to Reagan’s demands in order to end the shutdown.
The last funding gap during Reagan’s presidency happened in December 1987, but Congress averted a shutdown by quickly passing a bill that again provided funding to the Contras. This was just months after Congress had held hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair.
5. October 5–9, 1990
When President George H.W. Bush accepted his nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention, he famously said: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” His subsequent decisions to raise taxes during his presidency rankled House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. In 1990, Gingrich led a Republican rebellion against a funding bill, triggering a shutdown that led national parks and museums to close.
6. November 13–19, 1995
Up until now, government shutdowns had lasted around one to three business days. In 1995, they started to get longer. That November, the government furloughed 800,000 federal employees after Newt Gingrich, who was now the speaker of the House, sent President Bill Clinton a funding bill he expected he’d veto because it raised Medicare premiums and cut environmental regulations.
When reporters interviewed Gingrich about the shutdown, he mentioned that Clinton hadn’t talked to him on a recent Air Force One trip to attend the funeral for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
7. December 15, 1995–January 6, 1996
A month after the November shutdown, another standoff between Gingrich and Clinton led to a much longer shutdown. During the 1995 to 1996 disruption, the government furloughed 280,000 workers. It was the first time a funding gap had shut down the government for more than a week, and the length of this shutdown caused significant delays for government services. When the State Department resumed normal functions in January, it had a backlog of 200,000 passport applications to process.
After such a lengthy and unpleasant shutdown, the United States didn’t experience another funding gap or shutdown for nearly 18 years.
8. September 30–October 17, 2013
The no-shutdown streak ended in 2013 over a battle between Democrats and Republicans in Congress over the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, which President Barack Obama had signed into law in 2010.
The president and his fellow Democrats opposed the Republicans’ demands to defund the act, and when the deadline to pass funding expired, the government furloughed 800,000 workers. The shutdown ended weeks later when Obama signed a bill that made minor changes to the ACA, but did not include the major defunding the Republicans had wanted.
9. January 19–22, 2018
In 2018, the government briefly shut down when Democrats in Congress tried to force Republicans to protect beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
President Obama created the DACA program in 2012 to allow undocumented people who came to the United States as children to remain in the country. In 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced a plan to phase out the program. To end the shutdown, Republicans agreed to vote on DACA later that year.
10. December 21, 2018–January 25, 2019
In late 2018, another funding gap triggered the longest shutdown in U.S. history. This time, the funding argument was over Trump’s proposed plan to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The shutdown led the government to furlough 800,000 federal workers. Democrats refused to fund the wall, and ultimately Republicans relented. The shutdown ended a month after it began with no funding in place for a border wall.