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Why Ronald Reagan Had a Record Eight Shutdowns

January 10, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Most government shutdowns happen over hot button issues where the Democratic and Republican parties strongly disagree—abortion in the 1970s, Medicaid and Medicare in the ‘90s; and Obamacare, DACA and a “border wall” in the 21s century. Similarly, the record eight shutdowns that happened during Ronald Reagan’s presidency highlighted some of the biggest political battles of the 1980s, from funding for people on welfare to the Iran-Contra affair.

1. The fight over domestic vs. defense spending: November 20 to 23, 1981

The first shutdown where a large portion of the government actually stopped functioning came in 1981, when Reagan furloughed 241,000 of the government’s 2.1 million employees without pay.

This shutdown concerned what’s known as “Reaganomics.” Reagan had campaigned on a platform of cutting domestic spending without hurting Cold War defense funding, and that’s exactly what this shutdown was over. On one side, Reagan wanted to cut domestic spending by several billion dollars; and on the other, the Democrat-controlled House wanted more defense cuts and higher wages for members of Congress and senior civil servants.

In the end, Congress and Reagan worked out a temporary bill to give them more time to work out a long-term spending plan. This was technically the seventh government shutdown over a spending bill disagreement, but the first to impact federal workers on a large scale.

Tammy Wynette singing to President Ronald Reagan during a barbecue for members of Congress on the South Lawn in 1982.

2. Democrats decide not to ‘stand by their man’: September 30 to October 2, 1982

Reagan’s first 1982 shutdown didn’t happen over a major political issue, but the reason behind it is very 1980s. The reason Reagan and Congress didn’t reach a budget agreement on September 30 was because they all had social functions they needed to get to.

Democrats in Congress had scheduled $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner far in advance for that night, and Reagan had also invited all of Congress to a White House BBQ on the same evening. This did cause some tensions between Congressional Democrats and Reagan; the Democrats were angry he’d scheduled his party on the same night as theirs, and were worried that they’d lose guests to the president’s BBQ.

One of the featured guests at the White House BBQ was the country singer Tammy Wynette, who sang her hit “Stand By Your Man.” In his remarks that night, the …read more


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