Shutting Down The Government Is A Modern Phenomenon — And It's Uniquely American

Jan 10, 2019
Originally published on January 10, 2019 12:40 pm

The ongoing partial government shutdown over border security is on track to become the longest in history, if it stretches into a 22nd day on Saturday.

Shutting down the federal government is a fairly modern phenomenon — the first one happened in 1980. So whose idea was it to close the government when lawmakers and the president couldn’t agree on how to fund it, and how did they settle those disputes before?

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson gets a history lesson from Joanne Freeman (@jbf1755) and Brian Balogh (@historyfellow), co-hosts of the podcast “BackStory,” produced at Virginia Humanities.

“Other countries don’t do it in quite the same way that we do,” Freeman says. “I mean they certainly have standoffs and strikes. But as far as a shutdown, where entire institutions of government are shut down and employees don’t get paid, that’s really more of an American tradition — as short-lived as it might be.”

The current record-holder for longest shutdown came in late 1995 and into early 1996, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the first Republican Congress in decades in a tussle with Democratic President Bill Clinton. Gingrich was determined to “shake things up” and cut government spending, Balogh says.

“He said, ‘We’re going to close this deficit, we’re going to slash programs like Medicaid and Medicare,’ and Bill Clinton said, ‘No, you’re not.’ And they duked it out for three weeks, and that was the first time that the government was shut down for a prolonged basis, and that people’s pay was delayed, 800,000 workers — similar to the number of workers out right now — were affected by this,” Balogh says.

Interview Highlights

On the early U.S. government being so small and ineffective, it may as well have been shut down

Joanne Freeman: “Well it was certainly really small. Historian John Murrin described the early federal government as ‘a midget institution in a giant land.’ So the whole government was small, the administrative state was really tiny. A great example of this is what would happen in the course of wars, like the War of 1812 or the Civil War: You would have the army built up for the purpose of war, and then largely demobilized once the war was done, because it wasn’t needed anymore, so let’s make it smaller.

“I’d say the two ways in which the government most reached out in this period would have been customs houses at ports that were collecting customs duties, and the post office, which to some people at the time would have seemed like it was the government.”

Brian Balogh: “We have this great story about a Frenchman who had fought with Lafayette in the American Revolution, he pays a visit to the secretary of war in Washington, D.C. — now, Washington, D.C., was pretty new in 1796. Anyway, he expects to see a sentinel, [there’s] nobody there, walks into the building, he sees two clerks and he says, ‘I’m here to meet with the secretary of war,’ and they say, ‘Sorry, he’s getting a shave at his neighbor’s house.’ So I think he was even more appalled, this Frenchman, when he learned that those two clerks were the War Department — that was it.”

On shutting down the government as a political maneuver being a strategy that wouldn’t have registered for Americans centuries ago

Freeman: “Certainly, they wouldn’t have gotten it in the way that we we’re experiencing it now … as some kind of grand political gesture that’s supposed to have a big impact. They understood at the time things like congressional logjams, and the government being sort of stuck on an issue for a long time. But as far as a shutdown, it’s just that the government was so small, it’s not as though what we’re calling this ‘grand shutdown’ really would have had much of an impact.

“I mean just look at Washington, D.C., at the turn of the 19th century: It was basically a handful of big government buildings scattered amidst lots of vacant plots of land and some small wooden buildings. Someone at the time said that Washington ‘looked as if the British Museum suddenly migrated to the center of an exhausted brick field.’ So, you know, it’s not the metropolis that we imagine it today, and as far as the number of people in the federal government, around the time when Thomas Jefferson assumed office — so right at the turn of the 19th century — there were only 153 federal employees working in Washington, and over the next 30 years, although the nation’s population increased 150 percent, that number barely doubled.”

On how lawmakers resolved funding disputes when they disagreed with the White House

Freeman: “Well sometimes, they bargained.”

Balogh: “That sounds awfully old-fashioned.”

Freeman: “I know, silly me, that whole debate and compromise thing. But it’s true, that if you go all the way back to the first Congress, you had essentially the ultimate logjam in Congress over Hamilton’s financial plan, and the way that that was resolved was a backroom bargain. I mean that’s actually ‘the room where it happened’ in the ‘Hamilton’ musical.”

Balogh: “A dramatic example was President Jackson, who hated the bank of the United States. When Congress rechartered the bank — its charter was going to expire — Jackson just vetoed it. But that wasn’t enough. He then withdrew all of the U.S. funds from the bank of the United States, because the bank still had another couple of years before it would have come to an end. So they did stuff like that.”

On the Carter administration deciding that the government will shut down if Congress and the president can’t agree on how to fund it

Balogh: “In the past, Congress had been a little late, let’s say, with appropriating funds. But the government had not shut down, workers stayed in their jobs and they got paid pretty quickly, and they did their work. Now you have to remember that what a lot of this is about in the recent times is really a tug of war, a partisan war, we’re seeing that play out right now of course. Congress and the presidents were often very much the same after the New Deal, and Congress was virtually always Democratic.

“But under a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and a Democratic Congress, Carter’s attorney general stumbled across an old law from the 19th century that said, no, you actually have to shut down the government if there’s not an appropriation. And there was a one-day shutdown — one day, because in fact they were from the same party, Congress and the president — but a one-day shutdown, and the Federal Trade Commission had to start packing up their files, they canceled their court hearings and Congress appropriated the money. And the next day, they were back at work.

“Benjamin Civiletti, Carter’s attorney general, looked at this law and he said, ‘No, wait a second, we actually have to fine the head of an agency if they operate once the appropriation has expired,’ and that got their attention.”

On whether other countries’ governments shut down the same way the U.S. government does

Freeman: “I don’t know if this will or won’t surprise you, but the short answer to that question is no. … In other countries, when you have that kind of a financial disagreement in a budget or some kind of a financial arrangement is voted down, that’s often taken as a vote of no confidence, and then you’re talking about a change of government. So the United States is special in this unique shutdown tradition.”


Savannah Maher produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

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