Who Invented the Government Shutdown?

When does the government shutdown? The answer dates back to 1980.

A federal government “shutdown” did not exist before 1980. That is not because there were times when money had not been appropriated by Congress for the government to continue operating. That was, and still is, a fairly common occurrence.

But, when there was a time when money had not been appropriated, government employees still went to work, still got paid (usually a little late until funds were approved) and the situation was resolved without all the political drama we have invented since 1980.

The man who invented the shutdown? Benjamin Civiletti. Civiletti was the attorney general for President Jimmy Carter.

In a second legal opinion, he clarified his “either exists or it does not” rule. He concluded that the president has the constitutional “leeway to perform essential functions and make the government ‘workable’”. This is apparently the reason for essential and nonessential workers.

How to Resolve the Immediate Problem

The shutdown scenario with which we have become so familiar is based on a legal opinion of the US Attorney General. Presumably, the current US Attorney General could issue a different opinion that concludes the shutdown requirement, first “discovered” in 1980, was in error.

Whether the current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, would reach the same conclusion is unknown. But, as the system worked well for 110 years without all the political drama, a reasonable person may conclude it was not the intent of Congress in the late 1800s to create such a draconian system.

Politics and a Government Shutdown

The reality is that a shutdown provides political leverage. Politicians get to expound on national television on which party is “right” and which party is “wrong” in their budget priorities. It makes our politics more divisive than is necessary. It certainly does not create a more efficient government. And, as many FedSmith readers have recounted, it creates hardship and inconvenience for many federal workers.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47