Barring some miraculous deliverance or last-minute outbreak of sanity, the U.S. federal government will shut its doors in a few hours. With very few exceptions I don’t run articles on this blog about contemporary politics, but as we coast toward this bizarre political and economic crisis it occurred to me that it might be helpful to look back in history, to the last time this sort of thing happened.
The last government shutdown was actually two separate events, but they were closely related. Republicans, led by then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, had won a majority in the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Democrat Bill Clinton sat at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and a head-on collision between these two strong political personalities was essentially inevitable. The flash points in 1995 were Medicare, environmental regulations, and education. Gingrich and the Republicans wanted to curb spending, but Clinton balked at cutting these items. When the fiscal year ended on September 30, 1995, no federal budget had been passed.
On October 1, Congress passed a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running for another six weeks, pending the formal passing of a budget. This resolution was set to run out on November 13. The House passed another continuing resolution, but added a rider that slashed spending through a back-door means. Clinton vetoed it. Despite a last-minute meeting between Al Gore (Democratic Vice-President) and Bob Dole (Republican Senate leader and soon to be Presidential candidate) on the eve of the shutdown, the politicians couldn’t agree, and Washington went dark at midnight.
The next few days turned out to be pivotal in Clinton’s presidency, but not in the way anyone intended, or even knew at the time. The White House settled into siege mode. Non-essential employees were sent home, but interns, who weren’t paid, continued working. One of them, Monica Lewinsky, who had begun working at the White House in July, had been flirting with Clinton. On November 14, the first full day of the shutdown, Clinton and Lewinsky ran into each other somewhere in the West Wing complex. One thing led to another, and they had some sort of sex–exactly what they did remains a subject of dispute. Their “inappropriate” (Clinton’s word) relationship continued or the next year and a half.
The gang’s all here: Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich in 1997.
On November 20, Congress passed a stopgap funding measure, another continuing resolution. This turned the lights back on and got federal employees their paychecks again, but the danger wasn’t over. None of the issues that caused the shutdown had been addressed. Heading into the Christmas holidays, neither Clinton nor Gingrich would budge. On December 16, 1995, the next continuing resolution expired, and the government shut down yet again, this time through the holidays.
All the while, Clinton’s people and Congressional leaders sought to come to some sort of deal. In early January, a preliminary agreement was struck wherein Clinton agreed to balance the budget in 7 years in exchange and a trade-off of spending cuts and tax increases. (Clinton did, in fact, balance the budget, and it didn’t take him 7 years). On January 6, Congress passed a bill embodying the deal, and the shutdown was over.
But the damage had been done. The shutdown cost the taxpayers of the United States $400 million to pay federal wages in arrears. The Center for Disease Control couldn’t track disease vectors, which could have been a serious public health issue. The tourism and airline industries lost tens of millions of dollars because the State Department couldn’t process passport applications or conduct other business to facilitate foreign travel. Federal contracts totaling $3.7 billion were adversely affected.
The shutdown ultimately sealed the political fates of both Clinton and Gingrich. Clinton judged, correctly, that the American people would blame Republicans for the shutdown. They did. Though his poll numbers were down during the crisis, they shot up as soon as the government reopened, right in time for the beginning of the 1996 Presidential campaign. Clinton defeated Dole by a handy margin and became the first Democratic president re-elected to a second full term since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Of course, his dalliance with Lewinsky led to the scandal that nearly cost him the job he won in November 1996.
Gingrich too was badly wounded. Politically the shutdown backfired on Republicans, whose political stock continued to plummet through 1996 and 1997. Gingrich’s overreach, especially during the Lewinsky scandal, led to his own fall from power as Speaker of the House in 1998. He resigned as Speaker during the impeachment and left Congress in January 1999.
Today’s government shutdown features, obviously, different players and different issues, but there are obvious similarities. History never repeats itself literally, but it does often rhyme. If the government goes dark tonight another page of political history will begin to be written. It’s worth thinking about what happened last time.