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The Shutdown Lesson People Seem To Have Trouble Learning

If another continuing resolution to fund the government is passed Thursday without an immigration deal, Democrats will learn a hard lesson from history: If you’re in Congress and planning to shut down the government to score political or policy points, you might want to think again.

The idea that every shutdown has political “winners” and “losers” is an oversimplification; historically, the compromises that emerge from these standoffs have often allowed people on both sides to point at something that they could claim as at least a small victory. That said, the side that has consistently gotten the shorter end of the stick during shutdowns is the members of Congress who oppose the president. That’s bad news for 2018’s Democrats, who, if the historical trend holds, are unlikely to extract many concessions on immigration in the wake of their decision to force a government shutdown over the issue last month.

Indeed, the modern government shutdown was devised by the executive branch and was initially used as an instrument to put pressure on Congress. True shutdowns have only been possible since 1980, when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued a legal opinion that funding gaps must lead to operational gaps as well. Before that, federal funding gaps existed only on paper; government continued to function on credit and simply paid costs retroactively. A tour through the history of government shutdowns before 2018 (specifically, the seven full-blown shutdowns in which government workers were furloughed; 11 other funding gaps didn’t lead to major service disruptions) shows how presidents have used them to their advantage.

  • The first time an executive ordered a far-reaching federal government shutdown was on Nov. 23, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan vetoed Congress’s spending proposal because it did not contain at least half of his requested $8.4 billion in domestic spending cuts. As a result, 241,000 government employees were furloughed for one day, after which Reagan and Congress agreed to a stopgap bill maintaining funding at its previous level. The extension bought the two sides time to negotiate a permanent fix, which they did in December. A coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans passed a bill that cut $4 billion, just crossing Reagan’s red line. Given that the shutdown made significant progress toward Reagan’s goals but ultimately forced him to settle for far below asking price, this shutdown is probably best considered a draw.
  • In 1984, the government funding bill was tied to a Reagan-supported crime bill, $24 billion in water projects favored by Democrats, and a Senate measure reversing a court decision weakening civil rights requirements for colleges. Reagan’s proposal to pass a clean resolution without any of the three riders was not adopted by Congress, sending the government into a shutdown. After a harmless three-day funding gap gave way to a half-day furlough, Reagan scored a massive win: Congress passed a spending bill without the water projects and civil rights measure but with a version of the crime bill and even added funding for the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.
  • Reagan squared off with Congress one last time in 1986 over several ancillary issues wrapped up in the appropriations bill. House Democrats demanded an expansion of welfare, a requirement that offshore oil rigs be built with American goods and labor, and a law preventing companies from avoiding hiring union workers. They relented on all three, but Reagan and Senate Republicans gave them plenty of consolation prizes: a raise for federal workers, the elimination of tax breaks for the sale of Conrail (a federally owned railroad company), a promise to vote on the welfare expansion in the next Congress, and the smallest defense spending increases of Reagan’s administration. The GOP also got more funding for the Contras and an arms-control compromise with fewer constraints on the executive. It was another shutdown without a clear winner.
  • In 1990, President George H.W. Bush thought he had a budget agreement with congressional Democrats that would achieve his goal of reducing the deficit, but it was scuttled by rogue Republicans (led by one Rep. Newt Gingrich) who were upset that Bush had broken his “no new taxes” pledge. Bush vetoed Congress’s stopgap bill that would have kept the government running, but the resulting three-day shutdown was muted by the long Columbus Day weekend, and a compromise was struck just in time for the start of the workweek. Bush got a budget resolution that promised to cut the deficit on the scale he had asked for, but it contained fewer Medicare cuts and deferred to congressional committees to decide what should be cut and how. The president got his win, but his opponents succeeded in drawing blood. Both Bush and Congress saw sharp drops in their approval ratings. (By contrast, Reagan’s polling was not significantly affected by any of his shutdowns.)
  • Perhaps the most famous government shutdown in history was actually two shutdowns: five days in November 1995 followed by a further 21 days from Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, 1996. Gingrich, who had by that time become speaker of the House, sent Democratic President Bill Clinton a spending bill packed with GOP priorities: increases to Medicare premiums, environmental deregulation and a balanced-budget commitment. Clinton triggered the first shutdown by vetoing that initial bill, but the two sides soon reached a compromise after Clinton committed to balancing the budget within seven years.
  • The second shutdown occurred when Clinton and Gingrich couldn’t agree on who would decide if a budget was balanced: the Congressional Budget Office or the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Eventually, Democrats and Republicans agreed to a budget. On policy, this standoff could be seen as a draw, but politically, congressional Republicans were the clear losers. The GOP’s poll numbers tanked, while Clinton cruised to re-election 11 months later.
  • Finally, in 2013, the fight over Obamacare took Congress and the White House to the brink of the fiscal void. The Republican-controlled House insisted on a spending bill that would defund the controversial health care law or, at the very least, delay some of its provisions; the Democratic-led Senate and President Barack Obama refused to play along. After a 16-day shutdown, Congress approved a spending plan that left Obamacare virtually untouched. (The only concession Republicans received was a requirement that people prove their eligibility for health care subsidies.) Most House Republicans voted no on the spending bill, prompting Speaker John Boehner to tell a radio host, “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win.” Congress’s already-dismal approval ratings dipped into the single digits (!), while Obama’s weren’t meaningfully affected.

The final scoreboard reads as follows: The president and his allies notched clear-cut wins in two shutdowns (1984 and 2013). They got the sweeter end of a mutually beneficial deal in three others (1990, 1995 and 1995-96). And the two sides arrived at a fairly equitable compromise in the remaining two examples (1981 and 1986). That means congressional agitators have never won a major shutdown standoff, and that should unsettle Democrats.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.