Conservative commentators are playing the Ecclesiastes card. Government shutdowns, they argue, aren’t merely a Republican indulgence. Tip O’Neill did it to Ronald Reagan! Similarly, congressional Democrats, they say, are no strangers to debt-ceiling brinksmanship, citing a 2006 vote by freshman Senator Barack Obama. There is no new thing under the sun.
The conservatives are correct, but only in the same sense that a nuclear warhead is no different from a cherry bomb. Both are explosive devices, but the difference in scale warrants attention.
“Government shutdowns have often been part of the push and pull of Washington’s appropriations process,” writes Joseph A. Morris, general counsel of the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan administration, in a Washington Post op-ed. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, writes Andrew Stiles in National Review Online, shut down the government seven times under Reagan and five times under Jimmy Carter, a fellow Democrat. The only thing that’s different, Morris argues, is that Reagan was willing to negotiate a compromise, whereas Obama is not.
But a rundown of all 17 government shutdowns going back to 1976, compiled in 2011 by NBC’s Pete Williams, makes clear another difference. Not one of the shutdowns that occurred under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush exceeded three days. (The shutdowns of the Ford-Carter era were longer, but these were much more theoretical affairs because they occurred only on paper.)
Why were the Reagan and Poppy Bush shutdowns so short? Because these were mostly skirmishes about budgeting priorities about which both sides could (and, eventually, did) compromise. In the few instances that involved major administration policies (funding the MX missile, funding the contras, eliminating the “Fairness Doctrine”), the White House won every time, if not immediately, then shortly thereafter.
The current standoff (which has already reached the three-day mark, with no end in sight) is part of an avowed Republican effort to repeal the 2010 health care reform, whose significance overshadows every other item of domestic policy during Obama’s presidency (and during every Democratic presidency since that of Lyndon Johnson). Obamacare is much, much bigger game than the MX missile, or the contras, or the Fairness Doctrine ever was. (That’s why the hard-right, total-war House faction that’s driving the shutdown wants to kill it.) The Affordable Care Act is much bigger game even than the large Medicare cuts sought by the Republican House and Senate during the two Clinton-era shutdowns of late 1995 and early 1996, which lasted not days, but weeks—exhausting the nation’s patience with government shutdowns in general, and affixing blame to overreaching congressional ideologues. (Sound familiar?)
As for debt-ceiling battles, Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review Online and Sean Cooke of The Federalist remind us that we’ve had plenty of those in the past, too. Both make much of a showdown between Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, which put off the president’s request for an increase in the $275 billion debt ceiling for an entire year. As a result, Eisenhower had to trim spending and sell off some federal assets. But a less-ideological account of the episode by CNN Money’s Joseph J. Thorndike notes that the situation wasn’t remotely comparable to a debt-limit showdown today because “budget shortfalls were small enough to be manageable.” That’s no longer true. Three times during Jimmy Carter’s presidency skirmishes with the (Democratic) House and Senate caused the debt limit to expire briefly, in at least one instance requiring the Treasury department to suspend bond sales. But Treasuries weren’t propping up the U.S. economy anywhere near the extent that they do today.
Dave Weigel, in Slate, recently examined a claim by Charles C. Johnson of the Daily Caller that Democrats have, since the 1980s, repeatedly fought debt-ceiling hikes (including in 2006). True enough, Weigel answered, but Johnson’s examples showed less than met the eye. In every instance cited, the Democrats “balked at raising it for a few days to make a point, then caved in.” Moreover, the Democrats never made such skirmishes a routine practice, as today’s House Republicans do. A 2005 paper by Anita S. Krishnakumar, professor of law at St. John’s University in New York, found that of the 42 bills to raise the debt limit between 1978 and 2002, thirty passed without amendments or conditions imposed on them, and of the remaining 12, five had only “minor amendments implementing procedural changes to the debt limit statute itself.” Another three had major amendments directly related to debt (for instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill requiring mandatory deficit reduction), leaving only four that had amendments that were entirely unrelated.
None of these prior episodes caused as much economic damage as the debt-limit crisis of Aug. 2011, which prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade U.S. Treasuries and cost taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion.
The current standoff between the White House and Congress is harming Congress (specifically, the House) more than previous such standoffs did because such confrontations have, over time, increased in magnitude (shutdowns), frequency (debt-limit fights), and general capacity to cause serious mischief. Much of the blame lies with the heightened fanaticism of the House’s reactionary wing. But it’s also just true that Congress, no matter which party controls it, has become more reckless in wielding tools of obstruction, even as the consequences of doing so have grown more dire. Much like the Senate filibuster, government shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises have become so big or so frequent that they’re causing unprecedented mayhem. Which is why even Republicans are starting to contemplate removing them from Congress’s toolbox.