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History Isn’t Repeating Itself — This Shutdown Is Different

Former Reagan Administration official Joseph Morris argues that there’s nothing unusual about policymakers using a government shutdown to work out policy differences.  In an October 2 Washington Post column, he claims the Reagan years prove it and, therefore, people should stop criticizing House Republicans for shutting down the government to extract changes in health reform.

But the evidence that Morris cites undercuts his arguments.  This time indeed is different, and it’s far more dangerous to the economy and the functioning of American democracy itself, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote last week.  The only precedent for this shutdown is the long, harmful, and ultimately unsuccessful 1995-96 episode, in which House Republicans tried to force President Clinton to sign into law parts of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”

Morris points to several occasions in the 1980s when the President and Congress didn’t reach agreement in time on appropriations bills or a continuing resolution (CR) and, consequently, the government shut down.

But as Morris acknowledges, those shutdowns occurred largely because of disagreements over the funding levels for the CR or appropriations bills themselves, and the shutdowns were short.  Prolonged shutdowns did not occur because lawmakers in one chamber, already satisfied with the funding levels in a CR, sought to extract highly controversial changes on other policies unrelated to CR funding levels — like health reform.  The brief shutdowns Morris cites were not exercises in hostage-taking.  They were mostly disagreements — quickly resolved — on the levels at which the CRs should operate.

In the current shutdown, by contrast, Congressional Democrats have agreed to accept in toto the CR funding levels that Republicans seek — continuing the 2013 funding levels, and thereby accepting (for the term of the CR) the 2014 sequestration level for non-defense discretionary programs while placing defense funding above this year’s sequestration level.  Although House Democratic leaders said in September they wouldn’t support these CR funding levels, Senate Democrats then accepted them, and last week, House Democrats announced they’d accept them in a CR as well.

That’s unlike Morris’ Reagan-era episodes.  He misses the basic point — if we legitimize action by hardline Congressional factions to shut down the government indefinitely if they don’t get dramatic policy concessions they can’t otherwise win, that will likely become a regular feature of Congressional politics and our political system will become still more dysfunctional.

In a trenchant analysis, the Center for American Progress’ Scott Lilly highlights other deficiencies in arguments like Morris’.  He explains that prior shutdowns other than the Clinton-Gingrich confrontation in 1995-96 were extremely brief and often occurred over weekends or holidays.  A Congressional Research Service analysis shows that every one of the 1980s shutdowns that Morris cites lasted only one to three days, and in the majority of those cases, at least one of the days came on a weekend.

That’s why, as we’ve previously said, the current situation is different and is fraught with peril.  And it’s why Friedman, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, ourselves, and other observers have emphasized that the President is right not to negotiate or make concessions in return for re-opening the government or raising the debt limit.  We should not reward and enshrine hostage-taking and extortionate tactics as a basic part of American politics.