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Some fast facts on shutdowns past

Since the record-breaking 21-day government shutdown at the end of 1995, the analysts at the Congressional Research Service -- the team of analysts that provides in-depth studies on policy and legal issues for  members and committees of Congress  --  have prepared a series of reports (here and here) about the causes and effects of shutdowns past.

We read them so that you don’t have to.

Here’s some quick facts about shutdowns in the past and what their effects have been.

  • Before the Carter Administration, federal agencies generally kept their doors open even if Congress had failed to appropriate funds for them. But in 1980, a series of opinions by Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti directed that agency heads must suspend all operations not tied to “the safety of human life or the protection of property” in the event of a funding gap.
  • Other than “essential” employees (see below), some federal employees who are exempted from furlough in the event of a shutdown are: members of Congress, the president, and presidential appointees.
  • There have been 17 funding gaps since 1977, ranging in length from one day to three weeks. Those shutdowns totaled 109 days.
  • Between fiscal year 1977 and 1980 (during Jimmy Carter’s presidency) there were six shutdowns that together totaled 66 days.
  • The longest funding gap since 1977 was a 21 day shutdown in late 1995/ early 1996 after a budget showdown between a Republican-led Congress and the Clinton White House.
  • During that shutdown, 368 National Park Service sites were closed and toxic waste clean-ups efforts at 609 sites were stopped.
  • An estimated 284,000 federal employees were furloughed during the three-week funding gap. About 475,000 “essential” employees continued to work without receiving paychecks. (They later received back pay.)
  • During a five-day shutdown earlier that year, about 800,000 federal employees were furloughed.
  • About 20% of Washington D.C. area contracts took a financial hit as a result of the 1995/6 shutdowns, with about $3.7 billion of independent contractor business affected.

So, who’s “essential”? While individual agencies and congressional offices define which of their employees are “essential” and “non-essential,” they make those determinations based upon a commonly-cited memo published by the Office of Management and Budget in 1981.

According to that memorandum, essential employees are classified as those:

  • providing for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property
  • providing for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multi-year or other funds remaining available for those purposes;
  • conducting essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property, including:

— medical care of inpatients and emergency outpatient care;

— activities essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials;

— continuance of air traffic control and other transportation safety functions and the protection of transport property;

— border and coastal protection and surveillance;

— protection of federal lands, buildings, waterways, equipment and other property owned by the United States;

— care of prisoners and other persons in the custody of the United States;

— law enforcement and criminal investigations;

— emergency and disaster assistance;

— activities that ensure production of power and maintenance of the power distribution system;

— activities essential to the preservation of the essential elements of the money and banking system of the United States, including borrowing and tax collection activities of the Treasury; and

— activities necessary to maintain protection of research property.