Government shutdown is hot these days and consequently a target for Politics questions. For a person living in Europe and not familiar with US politics the concept of government shutdown is very strange.

This WP article mentions briefly about the government shutdown being something US specific:

But many Europeans would reject such an assessment of the current political chaos in Washington. Government shutdowns, they say, are uniquely American and hardly an indication of the demise of Western democracy.

I am wondering if the concept of "government shutdown" (e.g. furlough of non-essential personnel and curtailment of agency activities and services until the budget is approved) is something to be found in US only or it might happen in other countries as well.

Question: Is government shutdown US specific?

Ref. possible duplicate. I am interested if there is any state (not just those having a Parliamentary system) that has observed similar effects to a US "government shutdown" when the government practically is not able to pay its employees. AFAIK in most cases there is some kind of "interim budget" (e.g. the same as in previous year) that prevents a shutdown.

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    As an example, In Romania, by law, the Parliament had to approve the budget by November 15th. They failed to even deliver a plan by the beginning of January and nobody is worried about government not being able to function.
    – Alexei
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 8:34
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    Possible duplicate of Equivalent to government shutdown in parliamentary systems
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 8:49
  • is that because people would be ok with the government being unable to function?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 10:15
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    I am voting to keep this one open (even though it is asking a question about a similar topic) and to close the older "potential duplicate". The "potential duplicate" is actually a solicitation of opinion (something that is explicitly a no-no on this site today).
    – grovkin
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 20:03

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

Is government shutdown US specific?

In a very narrow sense, yes. Other countries don't usually shutdown due to the failure of the parliament to approve a budget (for reasons discussed here). But, in a somewhat broader sense, similar things do happen elsewhere.

There are somewhat analogous situations in other systems, such as the failure to form a government in Northern Ireland that resulted in layoffs at government contractors whose contracts could not be renewed as a result, but it doesn't play out in precisely the same way.

More often, the same practical effect that the U.S. sees from a government shutdown, due to its failure to approve appropriations bills, arises in other countries in connection with general strikes or public sector union strikes, which are very rare in the U.S. at the national level.

Long Answer

Failure To Form A Government

The closest analogy in a system that is parliamentary rather than Presidential, like the U.S., is when no party receives a majority of the seats in parliament and negotiations between the parties fail to produce a majority coalition that can form a government.

One of the most recent and severe examples of that kind of deadlock is from Belgium, called the 2007-2011 Belgian political crisis. Northern Ireland, similarly has had extended periods in which a government was not formed. Italy has also recently had this problem.

The practical effect of such a failure to form a government is particular to the government involved, and while a U.S. style federal government shutdown isn't common (and wasn't what happened in the U.S. prior to 1980 even when appropriations bills weren't passed in a timely manner), there are negative consequences and slow downs of key government functions when this happens. Usually, what happens is that the previous government continues to operate as an "interim government" until the new one is formed with the formal or informal constitutional understanding that the lame duck government does not have the authority to make any major policy changes after losing an election, and the status quo continues.

In Northern Ireland, for example, this meant that relatively routine public works contracts could not be authorized resulting in many construction workers who usually work on public works projects being laid off.

Another way that this situations are resolved is that the largest party in parliament forms a minority government which can be voted out anytime a majority can be organized against it, forcing it to tread carefully in building support and usually collapsing earlier than usual when some issue or another gives rise to a no confidence vote.

Some newer constitutions, such as the Constitution of Afghanistan adopted in 2004, often have default rules keeping some sort of government budget in place in circumstances when no majority can agree on a new budget.

General and Public Sector Strikes

This doesn't mean that other countries don't have periods of time when large numbers of public employees aren't working. But, more often, this is due to strikes by public sector workers or "general strikes" of all unionized employees in a country.

Public employee strikes happen when a government employer and its unions reach a deadlock in negotiations similar to the deadlock that has occurred involving Congress and the President in the U.S. in budget negotiations. General strikes usually concern government actions that have become wildly unpopular among a large cross-section of the population causing the labor movement generally to coordinate and organize a strike over broad political issues rather than over narrow employment contract issues.

Most U.S. government employees are forbidden from going on strike (although "sick outs" such as those currently going on in the TSA in the U.S. aren't unknown), and federal government employee strikes whether legal or not have been exceedingly rare in practice.

Wikipedia notes just six general strikes in U.S. history, one in 1919 in Seattle, and four in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, one in Toledo, one in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco and one at West Coast Ports. There was also a general strike twenty years ago in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1998. The last one in the English Speaking United States was 76 years ago, and very few people living today remember it. The United States has never had a nationwide general strike and just two general strikes in its history, one restricted to a single industry, and the other to a U.S. territory, extended beyond a single city.

Per the same source, Spain has had four national general strikes since 2010 in addition to one European-wide general strike in 2012, and Italy had a national general strike in 2002. In 1995, Canada has a national general strike, and France had widespread public sector strikes. France is noted for its frequent public employee strikes that shut down government services in one sector or another. For example, this past summer, France finally concluded a four month long set of rolling strikes by rail workers.

  • I would argue that public sector strikes are extremely different to the furlough; strikes are by ballot action and the cost of the strike falls on the strikers. Whereas the furlough is the employer failing to pay the employees.
    – pjc50
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 11:50
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    "when no party receives a majority of the seats in parliament and negotiations between the parties fail to produce a majority coalition that can form a government" For a current-today-right-now example, Sweden is in essentially that situation since the general election in early September 2018.
    – user
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 12:17
  • @pjc50 Sometimes there are public sector lockouts as opposed to strikes, and the employees bear the cost of a government shutdown in the short term as well. Obviously the cause is different, but in term of impact on the public the effect is similar.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 13:50

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