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