Military Life

The weird law that will keep your DFAC open during a shutdown

The Food and Forage Act of 1861 lets you feed your horse and lets your cabinet secretary feed you, even during a shutdown.
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DFAC Thanksgiving Celebration

Trays of food sit ready to be served at the Whitside Warrior Restaurant dining facility (DFAC) on Fort Riley, Kansas, on Nov. 22, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Mackenzie Striker)

We know it’s infuriating that many of our readers, once again, are facing a potential gap in their paychecks. That’s especially true for the Coast Guard peeps who are funded under a different bill than the Department of Defense. But have you ever wondered why the DFAC or mess stays open during shutdowns? Who’s buying that food?

Well, the military is, and the authority to do that comes from an 1861, Civil War-era law originally written to protect cavalrymen and their horses.

The laws, including the 1861 Food and Forage Act

Government shutdowns follow a set path. The Antideficiency Act is the major law controlling the government during shutdowns. In a nutshell, government employees can’t spend money until Congress appropriates it.

Except that exceptions exist. One of the more important but dated exceptions comes from the 1861 Food and Forage Act.

During the Civil War, Congress still appropriated money through the Ways and Means Committee. The committee’s workload ballooned during the war as spending went from $60 million annually to $1.3 billion.

Congress couldn’t always keep up with spending needs, and so it passed a law that exempted certain processes from needing money appropriated by Congress before the rest of the government could spend it. Congress didn’t want to let a bunch of horses starve because they lost a bill in some committee member’s desk. And so they named the law the Food and Forage Act.

Initially, the law just allowed soldiers to feed themselves and their horses, even if doing so incurred a cost Congress hadn’t agreed to pay for. So, for instance, a cavalryman could graze his horse on a field, eat apples from a tree, and promise payment to the landowner.

Fort McCoy BLDG 1362 Dining Facility.
Fort McCoy BLDG 1362 Dining Facility, October 27th, 2016.

How it affects you now

Since 1861, Congress has amended the law repeatedly. And now the authorities from the original 1861 act have grown, have been assigned to the Secretary of Defense and–when it comes to the Coast Guard–the Secretary of Homeland Security, and have been scattered across different sections of U.S. code.

But military authorities used the Food and Forage Act during Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Post-9/11.

And it’s good for you readers that Congress has expanded the act since we assume you are not a horse and that few of you are cavalrymen.

Now, the relevant cabinet secretaries can spend the money necessary to feed, house, and otherwise support the lives of service members under their care. That covers energy bills for the barracks, food for the DFAC, and cable TV for the airmen.

Okay, the Department of Defense says that it thinks it can buy a very specific list of items under the authority, and it’s not clear that includes cable TV, even for the Air Force.

Activities required to contract for and to distribute items as authorized by the Feed and Forage Act (e.g., clothing, subsistence, forage, fuel, quarters, transportation, and medical and hospital supplies).

Contingency Plan Guidance for Continuation of Essential Operations in the Absence of Available Appropriations

Of course, most service members would rather have their paycheck. Which…Department of Defense says is not for sure, yet. And commissaries at many bases will close. And troops might lose training slots or see entire exercises canceled that were planned out months or years in advance.

But, you know, at least you and your horse will eat and be able to stay in the barracks. Like Kristoff and Sven!