Shutdown: A cautionary tale for Congress
Before they let the U.S. government go into shutdown mode Tuesday morning, it might have been prudent for House Republicans to ponder how well the first major government shutdown went for its, er, architect, Newt Gingrich, in 1995.
Gingrich was then speaker of the House, and Bill Clinton was president.
As the Associated Press Connie Cass wrote this week, Serious issues were at stake in 1995 – the future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid for the poor, the budget deficit.
But, emboldened by minor, temporary shutdowns during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Republicans and Democrats were willing to take things to the edge.
As historian Taylor Branch recounted the week after the shutdown in his 2009 book, The Clinton Tapes, an account based on a series of interviews Branch secretly conducted with Clinton while he was still in the White House:
Gingrich especially seemed shaken by the final notice. They were going over the cliff after all, and the speaker quickly confided his surprise. All his calculations had assumed Clinton would bend or fold. Clinton said he thought Gingrich and his caucus were fooled by their own propaganda about the moral force of their proclaimed crusade. In the past week of shock and shutdown, as the presidents approval ratings skyrocketed, while those of Congress plummeted, they clung to hopes that the adverse reaction was temporary panic. (Clinton) relished the outcome so far. Public hostility to the shutdown refuted decades of orchestrated myth about harmful government. Citizens badgered legislators to reopen their passport office, Arlington Cemetery, or Yellowstone.
Thousands of federal workers were idled. Cass recounted: The effects rippled through the economy, harming federal contractors and businesses that serve visitors to national parks and industries that must work with federal inspectors.
After all was said and done, writes Cass, the president was judged to have won the tussle. Republicans took a drubbing in the polls and ended up accepting most of Clintons conditions in a compromise that seemed more like crying uncle.
But, Cass added, faith in government may have been the biggest loser.