The first government shutdown was more recent than you might think

In case you missed it, we are now in the midst of the ...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 3:16 AM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 3:16 AM

In case you missed it, we are now in the midst of the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States. But did you know that shutdowns are actually recent phenomena, dating back only to 1976?

Let's take a quick look back at the shutdown that kicked off the American government's apparent favorite pastime, and how we got there.

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Before the mid-1970s, the federal budgeting process was very different. Enter President Richard Nixon, who made a habit of impounding congressionally appropriated funds. He just refused to spend them! What a different time.

To wrestle back control of the budgeting process, Congress passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which led to:

  • Creation of the Congressional Budget Office
  • Creation of the House and Senate Budget committees
  • Shifting the government's fiscal year to October 1 through September 30
  • A timeline for White House and congressional budgeting

The 1974 budget act came into play in 1976, when Nixon's successor/pardoner, President Gerald Ford, vetoed the congressional appropriation bill for the Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare. Ford felt trapped by a Democrat-controlled Congress.

"The partisan political purpose of this bill is patently clear. It is to present me with the choice of vetoing these inflationary increases and appearing heedless of the human needs which these federal programs were intended to meet, or to sign the measure and demonstrate inconsistency with my previous anti-inflationary vetoes on behalf of the American taxpayer," Ford said in his veto message.

While Congress overrode Ford's veto on October 1, the process created a funding hiccup for parts of the government. It lasted until October 11, when Congress passed a continuing resolution to fill the gaps.

Back then, funding gaps weren't good, but we think about them very differently now. A lack of appropriations wasn't automatically cause for shuttering affected offices -- things largely went on as usual on the assumption that the government would figure things out. (Simpler times!)

It wasn't until the Reagan administration that the attorney general decided that spending money without official appropriations was illegal. These days, in government, as in life, an IOU doesn't count for anything.

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