The longest shutdown in U.S. history, which also happens to be the most recent, occurred during Bill Clinton’s presidency and lasted 21 days, from Dec. 15, 1995, until Jan. 6, 1996. It came only a month after a five-day shutdown from Nov. 13 to 19, 1995. From fiscal year 1981 through 1995, during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton presidencies, there were nine shutdowns, none lasting longer than three full days. Six shutdowns occurred during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, between fiscal year 1977 and fiscal year 1980, ranging from eight to 17 full days.
This week, the Senate will vote on an amended House bill to keep the government funded. The bill will then go back to the House. But this Congress and this White House have been locked in stalemates too many times for us to feel certain that we’ll avoid a shutdown: Think of the summer 2011 debt-ceiling fight, this year’s sequester showdown and a near-certain battle over the debt limit coming up again this spring. With House Republicans and the Obama administration constantly at odds, why would we think any agreement between them would be inevitable?
2. Shutdowns have little impact on the general public.
Even during a government shutdown, many federal services would be available to the public. Self-funded agencies, such as the Postal Service, would stay open. Uniformed military personnel would stay on the job. And federal guidelines mandate that certain other services continue, including national security functions such as airport screening and border and coast patrol; customs inspections and air-traffic control; and some benefit payments and contractual obligations, such as borrowing and tax collecting (yes, you would still have to pay your taxes).
But there are plenty of other services that would be missing: Citizens couldn’t get or renew passports, and foreign visitors wouldn’t be issued visas, affecting our tourism economy; all of our national parks would close their gates; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would stop monitoring diseases. Veterans would still receive health benefits, but those going through the application process would have to wait even longer to be granted benefits.
During the shutdowns in the 1990s, vital programs took hits. At the end of 1995, 2,400 workers stopped cleaning up toxic waste at 609 Superfund sites, investigations of delinquent child-support payments stopped, and decisions on whether to allow new medical drugs on the market were interrupted. Eleven states and the District of Columbia suspended unemployment assistance for lack of federal funds.
Payments to federal contractors were delayed, something that can be devastating to small businesses. Exports were also affected: Some companies were unable to ship goods overseas because no one was there to inspect them.