Why don't other countries run the risk of a government shutdown?

April 11, 2011

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Congress resolved a budget impasse at the last minute that would've shutdown most federal offices.

Americans might view a government shutdown due to budget disagreements as a universal problem, but in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled "Why Don’t Other Countries Have Government Shutdowns?",  Joshua Keating says that it's a uniquely American democratic tradition. 

The U.S. avoided a government shutdown when Congress struck a budget deal Friday night. If a shutdown had taken place, hundreds of thousands of federal employees would have been furloughed and myriad services we depend on would have been brought to a halt.

But even in the United States, the concept of a government shutdown is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Although it was proposed and passed as part of the Anti-deficiency act of 1884, but was not put into action until almost hundred years later.

In 1980, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti of the Carter Administration filed an opinion that made government shutdowns during budget disagreements a reality. It was that year when the first shutdown occurred.  Previously, during funding gap periods, agencies would simply keep operating.  Since 1980, the U.S. has had five government shutdowns, though only two have affected government workers.

Keating pointed out that the act of shutting down the government has made the United States an outlier among nations.  In parliamentary democracies, for instance, if the legislative body is locked in disagreement, there often is a vote of no confidence and a new election is called.  Nations such as Belgium are still managing to pass budgets through a caretaker government, despite legislative gridlock.  "With a presidential system we don’t have a mechanism like that", Keating said.

Government shutdowns are not even common in other presidential systems, as is the case throughout much of Latin America.  Keating argues that the contentious nature of the American two-party political system has turned the threat of a government shutdown into a negotiating tactic - a worst-case scenario that is used to push sides into eventually finding a compromise.

As a result, Keating cautioned that this is probably not the last time we'll see this threat in the United States, but that this threat is especially dangerous as the government becomes more involved in providing human services, such as health care. "I would expect this is just a preview of the kind of deadlock we can expect over the next few years," he said. "[This is] one aspect of us democracy we probably shouldn’t be exporting."