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What was the longest government shutdown in U.S. history?

Short-term funding bill fails, shutdown looms

The federal government is barreling toward its third shutdown in 10 years, with little sign of any imminent deal in Congress that would keep the government open past the midnight deadline Sunday.

The increasing likelihood of a government shutdown has raised questions about just long it could last. The most recent shutdown, which stretched from Dec. 21, 2018 until Jan. 25, 2019, was also the longest in history, and forced hundreds of thousands of federal employees to be furloughed or work for weeks without pay.

Here's what happened in some of the lengthiest prior shutdowns:

The longest government shutdowns

Since 1976, when the current budget process was enacted, there have been 20 funding gaps lasting at least one full day, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Before the 1980s, it was common for the government to continue operating like normal when funding bills hadn't been passed, Glassman said. But in 1980 and 1981, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two opinions that said it was illegal for the government to spend money without congressional approval. 

"Since then, there have been some funding gaps that have been relatively short — two or three days — and then there have been three long ones that are politically significant, all stimulated by Republicans," said Roy Meyers, political science professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

The 2018-2019 shutdown over Trump's border wall funding lasted 34 full days, making it the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Trump finally signed a bill to reopen the government without his demands being met.

Non-profit World Central Kitchen serves food to federal workers
People line up outside a food-relief location set up by the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which served free meals to federal workers effected by the partial government shutdown, in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 22, 2019. / Getty Images

Before that, the record was 21 days in 1995 and 1996, when President Bill Clinton refused to bend to steep spending cuts and tax reductions proposed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Public opinion was on Clinton's side and Republicans eventually caved, Meyers said. 

There wasn't another shutdown until 2013, when Republicans used budget negotiations to try to defund the Affordable Care Act. With efforts to gut the new health care law backfiring, Republicans gave in and the government reopened after 16 days.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged on Sept. 19 that public opinion has not sided with Republicans during previous shutdowns. 

"I'm not a fan of government shutdowns," McConnell said. "I've seen a few of them over the years. They never have produced a policy change and they've always been a loser for Republicans politically." 

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