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Should founders share blame for budget gridlock?

Tuesday - 10/1/2013, 7:00am  ET

The Washington Monument is seen through windows in a door in the U.S. Capitol Sunday morning, Sept. 29, 2013, as the United States braces for a partial government shutdown Tuesday after the White House and congressional Democrats declared they would reject a bill approved by the Republican-led House to delay implementing President Barack Obama's health care reform.(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

CONNIE CASS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- OK, gridlocked politicians we're used to. But why padlock the Statue of Liberty?

You don't see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants home just because their political parties can't get along. Belgian civil servants, for example, carried on nicely for a year and a half while their politicians bickered over forming a new government.

The partial shutdown Tuesday is a quirk of American history. So if you're bored with blaming House Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some responsibility on the Founding Fathers.

Or blame President Jimmy Carter for his rectitude. Or ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his hissy fit over how he exited Air Force One.

A history of government shutdowns, American-style:

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1789: Balance of powers.

The framers of the Constitution gave Congress control over spending as a way to limit the power of the presidency. The government can only spend money "in consequence of appropriations made by law," or in other words, after Congress says so and with the president's signature.

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1800s: Power struggles.

Turns out it's not easy to shoo federal bureaucrats away from the piggy bank.

When they wanted to spend more than Congress gave, the War Department and other agencies ordered stuff on credit. Then they would go to Congress seeking an appropriation to pay the bills. Lawmakers felt obliged to cover the government's debts, but they weren't happy about it. The executive branch was undermining Congress's power of the purse.

Congress responded with a series of laws that eventually got one of those dreadful Washington monikers: the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who mistakenly spend money Congress hasn't OK'd face disciplinary action, ranging from firing to hours stuck in mind-numbing budget training. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

But willful overspending is a crime that carries the threat of fines and two years in prison.

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1900s: A delicate balance.

The Anti-Deficiency Act seems clear. But as usual, Congress sent mixed messages. Lawmakers routinely failed to pass most of each year's dozen or so appropriations bills on time. Sometimes agencies went a full year without a budget. Usually lawmakers would smooth that over with a short-term money approval, called a "continuing resolution" in Washington-speak.

Sometimes Congress couldn't even agree on those: Stopgap resolutions got tangled up for days or a couple of weeks in political fights over matters such as abortion, foreign aid or congressional pay raises. Sort of like the current fight over health care.

But government agencies didn't shut down and Cabinet secretaries weren't led away in handcuffs.

Agency chiefs might delay workers' pay and put items such as travel and new contracts on hold. But they assumed Congress didn't want them to turn off the lights and go home. Eventually lawmakers would cough up a spending bill to retroactively paper over the funding gap.

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1980: An inconvenient truth.

This look-the-other-way system worked for decades. Until the Carter administration.

A stickler for the rules, Carter asked his attorney general to look into the Anti-Deficiency Act. In April 1980, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued a startling opinion. "The legal authority for continued operations either exists or it does not," he wrote.

When it does not, government must send employees home. They can't work for free or with the expectation that they will be paid someday.

What's more, Civiletti declared, any agency chief who broke that law would be prosecuted.

Five days later, funding for the Federal Trade Commission expired amid a congressional disagreement over limiting the agency's powers. The FTC halted operations, canceled court dates and meetings, and sent 1,600 workers packing, apparently the first agency ever closed by a budget dispute.

Embarrassed lawmakers made a quick fix. The FTC reopened the next day. The estimated cost of the brouhaha: $700,000.

Carter, a Democratic president forever stymied by his own party in Congress, ordered the whole government to be ready to shut down when the budget year ended on Oct. 1, 1980, in case lawmakers missed their deadline for appropriations bills.

A report by what's now the Government Accountability Office captured federal officials' dismay: "That the federal government would shut its doors was, they said, incomprehensible, inconceivable, unthinkable."

It almost happened. Funding for many agencies did expire, but just for a few hours, and nobody was sent home.

Near the end of his term, Civiletti further clarified the law's meaning. In a government-wide shutdown, the military, air traffic control, prisons and other work that protects human safety or property would continue. So would things such as Social Security benefits, which Congress has financed indefinitely.

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