Last Modified: Wednesday, October 02, 2013 5:12 PM
“What caused the government shutdown in 1995?” a friend asked at breakfast Wednesday. I couldn’t remember, although I knew Bill Clinton was president at the time.
Thanks to Google, the answers were out there. And there was information that showed government shutdowns aren’t popular with American citizens. They can also cause serious political fallout for those believed to be responsible.
Surprisingly, there have been 17 different shutdowns since 1976, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper said there were two in 1995-96, one lasting five days (Nov. 14-19) and the other 21 (Dec. 16-Jan. 6). It was the longest shutdown ever.
Republican opposition to Obamacare, which opened its health insurance exchanges Tuesday, is the reason for the current shutdown. The shutdowns in 1995-96 came after Clinton and Congress couldn’t agree on efforts to balance the budget.
Some political history helps explain how the earlier shutdowns came about. Clinton had been elected president the first time in 1992, and, two years later, Republicans won both the House and Senate at the 1994 mid-term elections. That ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House.
U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was elected speaker of the House, and came up with the Contract With America that promised major cuts to government programs. The contract especially targeted health care programs that were extremely popular with the public. Republicans stuck to their guns, and the shutdowns came.
The first five-day shutdown ended when Clinton agreed to Republican demands to balance the budget in seven years. The second ended when Republican Senate Majority Leader Robert “Bob” Dole of Kansas and Clinton came to terms with more acceptable budget cuts.
The Pew Research Center said the 1995-96 shutdowns themselves weren’t a political disaster for Republicans.
“Certainly, the government shutdown didn’t help the GOP’s image, but the party lost support among the public well before the initial shutdown in November 1995...,” the center said.
Just like today, Americans didn’t want Republicans, or anyone else, messing with their entitlement programs. Pew said the public’s views about Republican leaders’ policies were positive in the month after the election (52 percent approved and only 28 percent disapproved). The tables had turned by August of 1995 (just before the shutdowns) when only 38 percent approved of GOP proposals and 45 percent disapproved.
Clinton benefited. A month after the November 1994 mid-term elections, only 41 percent approved of the president’s job performance, compared to 47 percent who disapproved. By March of 1996, two months after the shutdowns, Clinton had a job approval rating of 55 percent.
A strong economy helped Clinton easily defeat Dole in the 1996 presidential election, but the Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is leading the fight against Obamacare, and he doesn’t buy the argument that Republicans were big losers because of the 1995-96 shutdowns. Cruz said today there are “young leaders in the Senate” who can “drive a message,” according to a report from the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Washington news bureau. The senator added that Clinton was a master strategist and Obama isn’t.
Maybe so, but most agree Obama isn’t going to throw in the towel on his signature health care law. It’s one of the few things he can brag about from what has been an uninspiring presidency.
Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer talked about the shutdown on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News.
“This (shutdown) is a lifeline for an administration that’s drowning,” Krauthammer said. “His numbers are low, the administration is in disarray, humiliated abroad, an economy stuck in the mud at home. He really has got nowhere to go...”
Krauthammer said in a column that Republicans have been the big losers in every fiscal showdown, and this one is no different.
“... How many times must we learn this lesson?” he asked.
The Pew Research Center said its poll taken the day before the current shutdown divides the blame — 39 percent said it would be the Republicans’ fault and 36 percent said it would be Obama’s.
This shutdown is extremely bitter. Gingrich said Obama “refuses to behave like an American president. He refuses to deal with the Congress as his equal, which it is in the Constitution.”
Obama complains that House Republicans are “trying to mess with me” by passing a bill to cut off money for Obamacare. However, The Associated Press said “the president and Democrats have flung out plenty of overheated rhetoric, referring to Republicans as blackmailers, anarchists, extortionists and more.”
Actually, the real losers in this bitter and unnecessary squabble are the American people, who are not being well-served by the men and women they have elected to national office. And, unfortunately, things are expected to get worse. The country will reach its debt ceiling Oct. 17, another crisis that is waiting in the wings.
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org