Government Shutdown: How Long Will it Last?

by Michael on Sep 30, 2013 · 11 comments

Photo of a Shutdown Button

As I write this, we’re less than two hours from a federal government shutdown. By the time you read this, it may have happened (probably) or it may have been averted (unlikely). Or maybe it will have happened and then been resolved.

While I consider the most current controversy to be little more than political theater that will ultimately be resolved with (hopefully) minimal economic damage, it’s still frustrating to have such a dysfunctional government.

Regardless, I thought it would be interesting to consider our history of government shutdowns. In case you weren’t aware, we’ve had a bunch. In fact, there have been no less than seventeen (not counting this one) federal government shutdowns.

Despite this seemingly large (at least to me) number of shutdowns, federal government shutdowns are a relatively new phenomenon. Believe it or not, we made it through our first 200 years without one. And then, it happened.

History of US government shutdowns

On September 30, 1976, the government shut down for 10 days. A year to the day later, it happened again, this time for 12 days. A month later, it happened again — for 8 days. A month after that, another shutdown for another 8 days. And then on September 30 of 1978 and 1979, we had shutdowns of 18 and 11 days.

In the 1980s, we had eight more shutdowns, though they ranged in length from just one to three days. In 1990 we had another short shutdown of three days. And finally, in 1995, we had two shutdowns in close succession.

The first was a 5 day shutdown the week before Thanksgiving. The second was a 21 day shutdown from mid-December to early January of 1996. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, I guess. And that’s it…

The government has managed to remain open for business for the subsequent 18+ years. Until now. Running the numbers, the our past shutdowns have averaged roughly 6.5 days each. This time around? Only time will tell…

Share your thoughts

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about all of this. So please leave a comment if you’re so inclined. Just keep it civil and don’t make me regret opening this up for discussion. ;-)


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Edward Antrobus October 1, 2013 at 7:44 am

There is one simple reason why we didn’t have a government shutdown before 1976. Before then, the government didn’t shut down when it didn’t have a budget. Congress regularly got into budget impasses that went on for weeks, but federal employees just ignored it and went into work anyway. Then in 76, Carter’s Attorney General decided that federal employees working without Congress paying them would be considered illegal volunteers. He had to quickly amend that to allow “essential” workers to stay working during a shutdown!

Another fun fact: After the ’95 shutdown, the term “essential” was changed to “excepted” because telling federal workers that they weren’t essential apparently hurt their feelings.

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2 Michael October 1, 2013 at 10:28 am

Edward: Interesting. I didn’t realize that shutdowns weren’t really even possible prior to 1976 — though it’s worth noting that the first one happened on Ford’s watch. Carter wasn’t inaugurated until January, 1977. Regardless, I learn something new every day. :-)

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3 Edward Antrobus October 3, 2013 at 7:23 am

Okay, maybe they said 78 on NPR then. So I don’t know about the first two then.

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4 Susannah August 8, 2014 at 11:57 am

It’s good to see someone thniikng it through.

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5 Little House October 1, 2013 at 10:04 am

Looks like this morning there is a “partial” shutdown in force. Since all previous shutdowns have resolved themselves within a matter of weeks, I’m assuming this one will as well.

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6 Michael October 1, 2013 at 10:31 am

Yeah, all shutdowns are effectively “partial” shutdowns since they allow “essential” workers to remain on the job.

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7 Money Beagle October 1, 2013 at 10:24 am

That’s a good little history lesson. I hope that we aren’t in this too long. It makes us look bad, it hurts the average citizen, and it really doesn’t benefit anybody if you look at it.

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8 Michael October 1, 2013 at 10:39 am

“Makes us look bad… hurts the average citizen… doesn’t really benefit anybody.” The very definition of politics as usual… ;-)

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9 Got2paint October 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Strange how politics is looked upon as evil. It seems to me a thankless job that is relatively unrewarded compared to the pay of any corporate officer.
Not to mention how is a Democracy supposed to function without politics? I bet in Syria they would welcome some knock-down drag-out political battles compared to what they have now!

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10 Tie the Money Knot October 1, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I tend to agree that this is political theatre, and really that’s about the extent to which I think about this. Sometimes politics can be fascinating, but many times to me its simply boring. This issue is one of them, as its theatre that’s not even that entertaining :)

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11 Who cares October 1, 2013 at 5:39 pm

This shut down is a mere blip on a long line of US stock market history… No one will care in a few months. In case you missed it, the S&P picked up 0.8% today. Funny how markets respond to things.

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