Several months ago, I argued that the United States debt ceiling is a counterproductive and anti-formalist measure that should be eliminated, albeit for what establishment thinkers might call the wrong reasons. However, the debt ceiling is only part of the problem. Another part is the practice known as a government shutdown. Let us examine this practice and its effects, then make the case for its elimination.


Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution delegates the power of the purse to Congress. Appropriations bills must start in the House of Representatives, then be approved by the Senate. Next, both houses must agree on a final version to send to the President’s desk. The President may approve the budget by signing the bill into law, or he may veto it. Following a presidential veto, Congress has the options of revising the budget to be more in line with the President’s position or trying to override his veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses (290 House members and 67 Senators at present). If no budget is passed before the existing budget cycle ends, a shutdown will occur.

A proper understanding of government shutdowns begins with the Antideficiency Act of 1870, which was passed in response to the behavior of government agencies. Before that time, it was common for government agencies engage in coercive deficiency; which is to say that they would spend more money than Congress had appropriated for them and dare Congress to allow them to cease operations and fail to meet obligations until the next fiscal period. The Act put a stop to such behavior by specifying that agencies may only spend money that Congress has appropriated for them. It has been amended several times since, most recently in 1982.

During a shutdown, the Office of Management and Budget determines which government functions are stopped.[1] Active duty military, federal law enforcement, medical personnel in federal hospitals, and air traffic controllers remain employed, while most of the civilian workforce and the full-time, dual-status military technicians in the National Guard are furloughed.[1][2][3] Self-funded programs, such as the US Postal Service, continue operation.[4] Programs funded by laws other than appropriations, such as Social Security, can be interrupted if they rely on activities that are funded by annual appropriations.[5] Members of Congress continue to be paid because only direct law can alter their pay.[6]

Initially, federal agencies responded to shutdowns by minimizing non-essential operations. Their reasoning was that Congress did not intend for them to close while waiting for a budget deal to be made. In 1980 and 1981, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two opinions concerning interpretation of the Antideficiency Act. These stated that the Act requires agency heads to suspend operations until appropriations are enacted, with the only allowable exceptions being “a reasonable and articulable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property.”[5] Despite these opinions, only four out of nine funding gaps between 1980 and 1990 resulted in furloughs.[7] Since 1990, the practice has been to effect a shutdown for any funding gap.

This type of government shutdown is unique to the United States. Systems which are more democratic, such as parliamentary systems, do not have separate legislatures and executives. Executive ministers in these systems are designated by the parliament, and failing to pass a budget usually counts as a no-confidence vote and triggers a snap election. There are usually provisions in place to continue using the previous year’s budget until a new one can be passed. In less democratic systems, the executive usually asserts the authority to continue operating the government without an approved budget.[8]

Read the entire article at


  1. O’Keefe, Ed; Kane, Paul (2011, Apr. 2). “Government Shutdown: Frequently Asked Questions”. The Washington Post.
  2. Riley, Charles (2011, Apr. 6). “Shutdown: 800,000 Federal Workers in the Dark”. CNN Money.
  3. Paletta, Damian (2011, Apr. 6). “Government Prepares for Shutdown”. The Wall Street Journal.
  4. Kolawole, Emi (2011, Apr. 8). “Government Shutdown 2011: Will I Get Paid? What Will Be Open? What Can I Expect?”. Federal Eye (blog of The Washington Post).
  5. Brass, Clinton T. (2017, Nov. 30). “Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects” (PDF). Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists).
  6. Shear, Michael (2011, Apr. 7). “Will Members of Congress Get Paid in a Shutdown?”. The Caucus (blog of The New York Times).
  7. Tollestrup, Jessica (2013, Oct. 11). “Federal Funding Gaps: A Brief Overview”. Congressional Research Service. p. 4.
  8. Zurcher, Anthony (2013, Oct. 1). “US Shutdown Has Other Nations Confused and Concerned”. BBC News.
  9. Barringer, Felicity (1981, Nov. 24). “Behind the Shutdown, a Long-Dormant Law”. Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286.
  10. Borkowski, Monica (1995, Nov. 11). “Looking back: Previous Government Shutdowns”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  11. Tolchin, Martin (1982, Oct. 1). “Conferees Adopt Stopgap Fund Bill”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  12. Pear, Robert (1984, Oct. 4). “Senate Works Past Deadline On Catchall Government Spending Bill”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  13. “Government Shutdown: Data on Effects of 1990 Columbus Day Weekend Funding Lapse”. U.S. General Accounting Office. (1990, Oct. 19).
  14. Espo, David (2013, Sep. 30). “Republican Unity Frays As Government Shutdown Looms”. Huffington Post/AOL/Associated Press.
  15. Plumer, Brad (2013, Sep. 30). “Absolutely everything you need to know about how the government shutdown will work”. Wonk Blog, The Washington Post.
  16. Cohen, Tom (2013, Oct. 17). “House approves bill to end shutdown”. CNN International.
  17. Shaw, Adam (2018, Jan. 20). “Government braces for shutdown as Senate fails to meet deadline for spending deal”. Fox News.
  18. Barrett, Ted; Bash, Dana; Diaz, Daniella; Killough, Ashley (2018, Jan. 23). “Congress approves plan to end shutdown, reopen government”.
  19. Kaplan, Thomas (2018, Feb. 9). “Trump Signs Budget Deal to Raise Spending and Reopen Government”. New York Times.
  20. The Economist (2013, Oct. 5). “Closed until further notice”. The Economist.
  21. Randstad USA “Employee Confidence Rebounds in Month Following Shutdown”. Randstad USA.
  22. “Rand Paul rightly says the government shutdown was more expensive than keeping it open”. @politifact.
  23. Cross, Tim (2013, Oct. 16). “Robot-Aided, Mass-Murder Jellyfish Orgy”. The Economist.