The longest shutdown in modern American history was also the least productive

Previous presidents shut the government down over healthcare, deficits, and abortion.
January 26, 2019, 1:53pm

President Trump threw up his hands on the 35-day partial government shutdown Friday, giving Democrats exactly what they wanted and pointedly not getting what he shut the government down for in the first place: $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall.

Shuttered government agencies are set to reopen for the next three weeks as Congress hammers out a broader border security deal, which may or may not include wall funding. If the president doesn’t like the deal he’s offered on Feb. 15, he can shut the government down again.

"As Democrats have said all along, the solution to this impasse was separate funding for the government and then go over our disagreements on border security," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a Friday press conference where he agreed to Trump’s three-week proposal.

This shutdown was notable for being the longest in modern American history but now also for how little it achieved.

Past shutdowns have been over fights on deficits, spending, abortion, and — most recently — Obamacare. Here’s what they accomplished:


President: Barack Obama

Duration: Oct. 1 to Oct. 17: 16 days.

Reason: Obamacare

A Republican-controlled House was attempting to disrupt the Affordable Care Act, which became law in 2010. So, amid budget negotiations, tea party factions tacked provisions onto spending bills that would’ve either depleted the healthcare law of any funding or delayed the law’s full implementation. The Senate, which was controlled by Democrats, refused to pass those bills, triggering a shutdown that lasted for 16 days.

Unlike Trump, Obama was ready to pass a spending bill agreed upon by Congress, so long as it didn’t come with any strings attached regarding the existing healthcare program. (Republicans had already failed to repeal the law or sue it out of existence.) But, he was up against an incredibly persistent freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, who read “Green Eggs and Ham” during a 21-hour Senate filibuster on how much he hated the healthcare law.

What they said: “We’ve been locked in a fight over here, trying to bring government down to size, trying to do our best to stop Obamacare. We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” then-House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, told a Cincinnati radio station when the shutdown ended.

What it accomplished: The GOP’s popularity suffered during the shutdown, so then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell caved and passed the spending bill Obama and Democrats asked for in the first place. Republicans continued to attack Obamacare, though, and have since tried to get rid of the law through more repeals and lawsuits.


President: Bill Clinton

Duration: Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996: 21 days

Reason: The deficit

At 21 days, the second government shutdown under Bill Clinton was — at the time — the longest shutdown in U.S. government history. The feud between Republicans and Clinton was over balancing the federal budget, with Clinton saying Congressional Budget Office forecasts were too pessimistic. Clinton had resolved an earlier shutdown by agreeing to balance the budget in seven years. The president eventually proposed a CBO-approved plan to balance the budget, and the government reopened. About 284,000 workers were temporarily furloughed.

What they said: House Speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged his actions during the shutdown were at least partially motivated by a personal slight after he was seated near the back of Air Force One. “This is petty,” he said. “You’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you, and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp … You just wonder, Where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”

What it accomplished: The incident is largely viewed as having damaged Newt Gingrich’s reputation as speaker of the House, with critics accusing him of fighting for a government shutdown over a personal vendetta against Clinton. The New York Daily News, for example, published a cartoon that depicted Gingrich as a baby throwing a tantrum.


President: Bill Clinton

Duration: Nov. 13 to Nov. 19: 6 days

Reasons: Medicare, environmental regulations, and the budget

The GOP-controlled Congress sent a spending bill to President Clinton’s desk that included increased Medicare premiums and cuts to environmental regulations, according to Vox. The bill, which Clinton vetoed, also stipulated that the budget had to be balanced in seven years. After five days, an agreement was reached to reopen the government and continue negotiations. Clinton agreed to the requirement of balancing the budget in the coming years. This shutdown resulted in 800,000 workers being furloughed.

What they said: Clinton said Republicans “failed to pass the straightforward legislation necessary to keep the government running without imposing sharp hikes in Medicare premiums and deep cuts in education and the environment.”

What it accomplished: Clinton agreed to a timeline for balancing the budget but the standoff largely hurt Republicans politically, with a Gallup poll saying 46 percent of people blamed the GOP for the shutdown while just 27 percent blamed Clinton.


President: Jimmy Carter

Duration: Sept. 30 to Oct. 12: 11 days

Reasons: Abortion, raises for government workers

Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. But they disagreed on a pay raise for government workers and whether federal funds could be spent on some abortion services. The House was on the side of raising pay for certain civil servants by 5.5 percent and curtailing federal dollars for abortion in almost all circumstances. The Senate disagreed with the pay raise, and wanted to keep federal funding for abortions in cases where the pregnant woman had been raped, subject to incest, or had a dangerous health condition during pregnancy.

Eventually, the two chambers agreed to keep the pay raises and also allow abortion funding in cases of rape, incest, or certain death — but not dangerous health conditions.

What they said: Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, was against the pay increases for civil servants: “I'm against a pay increase, but I don't want to see the Government grind to a halt.”

What it accomplished: The Senate succeeded in keeping government funding for abortions in extreme circumstances, maintaining the option for sick and abused low-income women.


President: Jimmy Carter

Duration: Sept. 30 to Oct. 18: 18 days

Reasons: “Wasteful” government spending and abortion

Jimmy Carter prevailed in an 18-day shutdown after he vetoed a defense spending bill that included money for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Carter also vetoed a public works appropriations bill because he wasn’t a fan of water projects that he deemed wasteful government spending. But that’s not all: There was also a feud over funding for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (which later split into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education) because Congress still couldn’t agree on whether and how Medicaid should cover abortion care.

What they said: “I am going to be very persistent in my own role as president in holding down unwarranted spending in individual bills that come to me from the Congress,” President Carter said days before he vetoed the bills.

What it accomplished: Carter pretty much won this fight, with defense spending and public works spending bills passed without the two provisions to which he objected. Congress again agreed on the abortion funding.

1977 x 3

President: Jimmy Carter

Duration: Nov. 30 to Dec. 9: 8 days

Oct. 31 to Nov. 9: 8 days

Sept. 30 to Oct. 13: 12 days

Reason: Abortion

The government went into a shutdown three separate times in 1977, all because Congress (controlled by Democrats) couldn’t agree on abortion. The Senate wanted Medicaid funding for abortions resulting from cases of rape, incest, and if the mother’s health was in danger. At the time, that money was only available if the mother’s life was in peril. On Oct. 13, Congress temporarily postponed the debate and reopened the government until Oct. 31. An agreement wasn’t reached, so it closed again until Nov. 9 when the government was once again temporarily reopened until Nov. 30. The final shutdown lasted until Dec. 9 when Congress came to an agreement.

What they said: Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, publicly worried that the Senate would be blamed for the shutdown.

What it accomplished: The funding was extended for cases of rape, incest, and danger to health, although Ronald Reagan later rolled these provisions back.


President: Gerald Ford

Duration: Sept. 30 to Oct. 11: 10 days

Reason: The president vetoed a spending bill he thought was bloated

A Democrat-controlled Congress sent a spending bill up to President Ford, which he vetoed because he thought it allocated too much money to the Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare. Congress quickly overruled that veto, but the shutdown still created a funding gap that wasn’t resolved until Congress passed another resolution to fund the rest of the government on Oct. 11.

What they said: “The partisan political purpose of this bill is patently clear,” Ford said after he refused to pass the first spending bill.

What it accomplished: This was the first shutdown since the government revised its budget-making process, and politicians figured out how to use government shutdowns for political purposes. (It wasn’t until 1980 that the government had to totally cease operations during a shutdown, though, so the political fallout wasn’t as great and it was more of a funding lapse than an actual shutdown.) Also, Democrats got the money they wanted.

Cover: President Donald Trump makes a statement announcing that a deal has been reached to reopen the government through Feb. 15 during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House January 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)