Funding Gaps and Shutdowns in the Federal Government
As required by the Constitution, all three branches of the federal government are funded through the appropriations process in the United States Congress. All federal spending bills originate in the House of Representatives, where they fall under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Appropriations. In 1865, the House moved the appropriations function away from the Ways and Means Committee, creating the Appropriations Committee to oversee the spending requirements of the Union’s war effort during the waning days of the Civil War. Since then, the obligations and responsibilities of the federal government have only grown.
Because the appropriations process can be such a complicated task, the Appropriations Committee divides its work among 12 subcommittees, each of which is responsible for producing a bill that funds particular departments and areas of the government. Like any other bill, spending measures must pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the President to become law. Congress conducts the appropriations process annually, for each fiscal year beginning every October 1. If regular appropriations bills are not signed into law before the start of the new fiscal year, Congress can pass a continuing resolution, or CR, which provides temporary funding in the interim period before regular appropriations bills are passed. If a new fiscal year begins or a continuing resolution expires without Congress appropriating new funds, parts of the federal government can experience a lapse in funding.
Prior to the 1980s, funding gaps did not typically have major effects on government operations. Government agencies would often continue to operate during a lapse in appropriations, with the expectation that funding would be provided in the future.1 In 1980 and 1981, however, United States Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti wrote a series of legal opinions that established the basis for government shutdowns. Civiletti called for a stricter interpretation of the Antideficiency Act, a longstanding law that prohibits government agencies from authorizing expenditures in excess of the amount Congress provided them by law. Ultimately, the Attorney General believed government agencies had no legal means to operate during a funding gap.2 Beginning with the appropriations process for fiscal year 1982, many subsequent funding gaps have resulted in a shutdown of affected agencies, in which day-to-day operations halt and employees are furloughed without pay. Eventually, federal officials carved out exemptions for government employees deemed “essential,” like military and law enforcement personnel involved in the protection of life and property.
Funding Gaps Since 1977
The table below lists funding gaps that have lasted for at least one full day.3 The "Shutdown Procedures Followed" column is marked "yes" if agencies were closed and their employees furloughed as a result of the funding gap. This includes both full and partial shutdowns. In some instances, funding gaps after 1980 had limited effects on government operations because the gaps were either too short or occurred over a weekend, meaning affected agencies did not begin shutdown procedures before Congress restored funding.4
|1977||September 30, 1976||10||October 11, 1976||No||H.J. Res. 1105|
Pub. L. 94-473
90 Stat. 2065
|1978||September 30, 1977||12||October 13, 1977||No||H.J. Res. 626|
Pub. L. 95-130
91 Stat. 1153
|1978||October 31, 1977||8||November 9, 1977||No||H.J. Res. 643|
Pub. L. 95-165
91 Stat. 1323
|1978||November 30, 1977||8||December 9, 1977||No||H.J. Res 662|
Pub. L. 95-205
91 Stat. 1460
|1979||September 30, 1978||17||October 18, 1978||No||H.R. 12929|
Pub. L. 95-480
92 Stat. 1567
Pub. L. 95-481
92 Stat. 1591
H.J. Res. 1139
Pub. L. 95-482
92 Stat. 1603
|1980||September 30, 1979||11||October 12, 1979||No||H.J. Res. 412|
Pub. L. 96-86
93 Stat. 656
|1982||November 20, 1981||2||November 23, 1981||Yes5||H.J. Res. 368|
Pub. L. 97-85
95 Stat. 1098
|1983||September 30, 1982||1||October 2, 1982||Yes6||H.J. Res. 599|
Pub. L. 97-276
96 Stat. 1186
|1983||December 17, 1982||3||December 21, 1982||No7||H.J. Res. 631|
Pub. L. 97-377
96 Stat. 1830
|1984||November 10, 1983||3||November 14, 1983||No8||H.J. Res 413|
Pub. L. 98-151
97 Stat. 964
|1985||September 30, 1984||2||October 3, 1984||No9||H.J. Res. 653|
Pub. L. 98-441
98 Stat. 1699
|1985||October 3, 1984||1||October 5, 1984||Yes10||H.J. Res. 656|
Pub. L. 98-453
98 Stat. 1731
|1987||October 16, 1986||1||October 18, 1986||Yes11||H.J. Res. 73812|
Pub. L. 99-500
100 Stat. 1783
Pub. L. 99-591
100 Stat. 3341
|1988||December 18, 1987||1||December 20, 1987||No13||H.J. Res. 431|
Pub. L. 100-197
101 Stat. 1314
|1991||October 5, 1990||3||October 9, 1990||Yes14||H.J. Res. 666|
Pub. L. 101-412
104 Stat. 894
|1996||November 13, 1995||5||November 19, 1995||Yes15||H.R. 2020|
Pub. L. 104-52
109 Stat. 468
Pub. L. 104-53
109 Stat. 514
H.J. Res. 123
Pub. L. 104-54
109 Stat. 540
|1996||December 15, 1995||21||January 6, 1996||Yes16||H.J. Res. 134|
Pub. L. 104-94
110 Stat. 25
|2014||September 30, 2013||16||October 17, 2013||Yes||H.R. 2775|
Pub. L. 113-46
127 Stat. 558
|2018||January 19, 2018||2||January 22, 2018||Yes17||H.R. 195|
Pub. L. 115-120
132 Stat. 28
|2019||December 21, 2018||34||January 25, 2019||Yes||H.J. Res. 28|
Pub. L. 116-5
133 Stat. 10
1James V. Saturno, “Federal Funding Gaps: A Brief Overview,” Report RS20348, 4 February 2019, Congressional Research Service: 4, https://www.crs.gov/Reports/RS20348.
2Saturno, “Federal Funding Gaps”: 1; 16 Stat. 251 (1870).
3Saturno, “Federal Funding Gaps”: 3.
4Saturno, “Federal Funding Gaps”: 2.
5“Shutdown Questions, Answers,” 24 November 1981, Washington Post: A5.
6Mike Causey, “The Federal Diary: Cost of Day's Chaos Around $88 Million,” 3 October 1982, Washington Post: C2; “Stopgap Funding Measure Adopted,” 1 October 1982, Atlanta Constitution: 3A. While furloughs were not anticipated on October 1 in this case, some offices were told to perform only essential operations and to follow shutdown procedures. It was unclear whether employees were still required to report to work.
7Karlyn Barker, “White House Tells Civil Servants to Report to Work,” 21 December 1982, Washington Post: A7.
8Paul Houston, “Seven Agencies Run Out of Money as Stopgap Funding Bill Is Delayed,” 11 November 1983, Los Angeles Times: B5; “Funding Bill is Signed by Reagan,” 15 November 1983, Philadelphia Inquirer: A5.
9On October 1, Congress passed a three-day stopgap spending bill, but the President didn’t sign it until October 3. In this instance, the anticipated funding prevented a shutdown during the three-day period. See Paul Houston, “Congress Passes Stopgap Spending Bill,” 2 October 1984, Los Angeles Times: 4, and Helen Dewar, “Federal Shutdown Readied as Senate Works on Funding,” 4 October 1984, Washington Post: A1; Public Law 98-441, 98 Stat. 1699.
10U.S. Goes 'Broke,' Furloughs 500,000,” 4 October 1984, Philadelphia Daily News: 4.
11Sharon LaFraniere and Peter Perl, “Federal Workers Create Noon Stampede: Most of 350,000 Employes Here Sent Home in Spending Bill Crisis,” 18 October 1986, Washington Post: A1.
12The President first signed H. J. Res. 738 into law on October 18, 1986, where it became Public Law 99-500. It was later discovered that a clerical error during the enrollment process caused several lines from the bill to be omitted. The President signed a corrected version of H. J. Res. 738 on October 30, which became Public Law 99-591.
13Karen Tumulty, “Congress Near Money Bill Accord: Emergency 1-Day Funding Averts Federal Shutdown,” 21 December 1987, Los Angeles Times: SDA1; Tom Kenworthy and Anne Swardson, “Congress Okays Stopgap Money,” 21 December 1987, St. Petersburg Times: 1A; Karen Tumulty, “Deal Sought Over Funds for Contras, Federal Shutdown Looms as Congress Awaits Money Bill,” 20 December 1987, Los Angeles Times: 1.
14National parks and federal museums were closed but most employees were not affected; funding was restored before the end of the weekend. Elaine Povich, “Bush, Congress Ok Plan to Avert Federal Shutdown,” 9 October 1990, Chicago Tribune: D1.
15Robert Manor et al., “Federal Workers get Sent Home, Shutdown Means Job Limbo for Thousands Here,” 15 November 1995, St. Louis Dispatch: 1.A.
16Eric Pianin and John F. Harris, “Clinton Signs Measures to Halt Shutdown,” 6 January 1996, Washington Post: A1.
17Robert Costa et al., “House Votes to end Government Shutdown, Sending Legislation to Trump,” 22 January 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/trump-slams-democrats-as-third-day-of-government-shutdown-begins/2018/01/22/3a3eecf0-ff25-11e7-9d31-d72cf78dbeee_story.html.