Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

September 30, 2013

How Congress got the power to shut down government

(Continued)

WASHINGTON, D.C. —

That doesn't mean closing the government was off the table. But those who threatened shutdowns were executive-branch officials, not hotheads in Congress. If, for example, a department of the government burned through its appropriation before the end of the fiscal year, it would send an emissary to Congress and ask for a supplemental appropriation. If the request was refused, the department could threaten to cease operations (the Post Office resorted to this tactic on several occasions). Faced with the threat of chaos, Congress invariably coughed up the necessary funds. Yet these open confrontations, according to the political scientist J. Roderick Kiewiet, tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Instead, government agencies and departments ran deficits, and Congress grudgingly made up the difference.

After the Civil War, Sen. John Sherman (a Republican of Ohio and the lesser-known but equally capable brother of William Tecumseh Sherman) led the charge to stop these "evils." In 1870, Sherman and his allies amended the laws governing the appropriations process. A little-debated and little-noticed statute now declared that "it shall not be lawful for any Department of the Government to expend in any one fiscal year any sum in excess of appropriations made by Congress for that fiscal year, or to involve the Government in any contract for the future payment of money in excess of such appropriations."

Yet this didn't stop government departments from exceeding their appropriations. In 1905, Congress acted again, passing legislation that built upon the 1870 legislation. This became known as the Anti-Deficiency Act. The law permitted Congress to allocate appropriations in increments rather than in a single lump sum. Addition amendments to the Act barred departments from spending money in the absence of an appropriation except in "extraordinary emergencies," and required departments to set aside reserves to deal with potential gaps in funding.

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