Some members of the House of Representatives are threatening to shut down the federal government by blocking appropriations bills in a disagreement over a minuscule amount of funding for Planned Parenthood – it appears that disagreement over the shutdown approach contributed to the decision of Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio) to resign from Congress. 

In past confrontations, the shutdown strategy has proved to be bad economic policy and politically a self-inflicted wound by Congress in its battle with the president over spending priorities.  The outcome promises to be no different this time if Congress forces an impasse and the normal functions of government stop.  


The last government shutdown occurred in October 2013. Approximately 850,000 federal workers, or 40 percent of the civilian workforce, were furloughed, for a total of roughly 6.6 million days, concentrated in the Departments of Defense, Treasury and Agriculture. Congress later compensated the workers for the time they were prohibited from working, at a cost of $2.5 billion in pay and benefits. The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis   estimated that the shutdown reduced real growth of the Gross Domestic Product by 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.  Countless government contractors also were forced to stop work and furlough their workers when the programs their contacts supported were suspended. All these factors had negative effects on job creation and economic recovery. 

On the political front, members of Congress who are considering a shutdown should ask themselves what they are going to do differently this time to avoid the debacles Congress has suffered every time it previously has resorted to this strategy.  There have been three major shutdowns – in the mid-1980s between the House under Speaker Tip O’Neil and President Reagan; in 1995 between the Gingrich House and President Clinton; and in 2013 under Speaker BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE and President Obama.  In each case, public opinion sided strong with the president, and the White House was able to use that support to his advantage in the overall debate with Congress over the budget when the funding was turned back on.  These results were no accident.  They were the result of a White House management process, developed by Reagan and followed by his successors, which has allowed the president to run the executive branch successfully through these crises and thereby persuade the public that Congress has failed in its core constitutional function to fund the government.  The Reagan White House turned an opinion about spending authority by Carter Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti into an effective plan for running the most important functions of government during a shutdown (defense, protection of health and safety, entitlements), and a powerful public relations weapon to blame Congress for highly popular programs that had to close (the Washington Monument, national parks).  The public support for Presidents produced by the White House shutdown plan has produced final funding decisions that favor the President’s spending priorities over Congress. 

A decision by Congress to close down the government in 2015 would be a fourth frontal assault against a fortified position defended by the president under the White House shutdown plan.  The facts suggest that Congress will again suffer a substantial defeat.  Before adopting this approach, supporters of this approach should ask what they will do differently this time to keep from suffering the same disasters suffered by their predecessors. 

Cooney is a regulatory and litigation partner with Venable LLP in Washington.  He formerly served in the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, where he helped develop the original executive branch’s plan for managing the government through a shutdown.  He can be reached at