Funding Gaps Have Only Forced Government Shutdowns Since the 1980s

Funding gaps didn’t always bring a shut down of the federal government

Adam Fagen

Today’s the day: Congress to figure out how to fund the government, or shut it down. “Right now,” says National Journal, “the odds of a shutdown are looking pretty strong.” If a shutdown goes into effect, many federal programs will be put on hold, as will the people who work in those jobs.

The trigger for the shutdown of the government is a “funding gap.” Without a Congress-approved budget by the beginning of the fiscal year—October 1—federal programs won’t have as much money allotted to them as they need to keep operating. But while funding gaps now go hand-in-hand with government shutdown, it wasn’t always that way. Funding gaps have been happening since at least the 1950s, and NBC says this would be the 18th since 1976. But these gaps didn’t trigger shut downs until the late 1970s, after Congress’ 1974 budget reforms went into effect.

Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti firmed up the requirement that funding gaps required the government to shut down in the early 1980s. The Congressional Research Service:

For years leading up to 1980, many federal agencies continued to operate during a funding gap, “minimizing all nonessential operations and obligations, believing that Congress did not intend that agencies close down,” while waiting for the enactment of annual appropriations acts or continuing resolutions. In 1980 and 1981, however, U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti issued two opinions that more strictly interpreted the Antideficiency Act in the context of a funding gap, along with the law’s exceptions.

The U.S. Constitution says that the government can’t pay federal employees if money wasn’t specifically set aside for them, and the Antideficiency Act, originally put into place in 1884, says that the government can’t take on new contracts if they don’t have a way to pay for them. Civiletti’s stance made this reading much more strict, and led to the decision elected officials are facing today, between agreeing on a funding bill or letting the government close for business.

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