The federal government’s partial shutdown this week grew from the same political brinkmanship as the last one — a two-parter spanning nearly four weeks in 1995 and 1996. But political experts say this one features far more polarized sides and a real threat to a weaker economy from a looming debt limit battle that did not bedevil the mid-1990s Congress.
“I think both sides should shoulder a good deal of the blame here from just a purely civic perspective. To me it just looks like bad government,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies.
“Do you see a statesman? I don’t see a statesman,” he said.
The first mid-1990s partial shutdown was brief. It ran from Nov. 14-19, 1995, and led to the furlough of about 800,000 federal employees — the same number currently affected by the shutdown, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan arm of the Library of Congress.
Government reopened as Congress and President Bill Clinton attempted to hammer out a deal, but when that failed the federal government closed again between Dec. 16, 1995, and Jan. 6. 1996. Some appropriations were approved after the November shutdown so the number of federal workers furloughed the second time was about 284,000, according to the 1999 CRS report. Another 475,000 “essential” federal employees worked without pay.
At first the impact was as it is now — mostly unseen except for people who worked at military facilities like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, or those wanting to visit a federal park or museum, or to apply for a passport or Social Security.
But as the second shutdown dragged on, agencies began running out of reserves. During the first week of January 1996 federal court officials warned that within a week judges would be unable to conduct jury trials and indictments might be dismissed under speedy trial rules, according to the Dayton Daily News.
That same week, the government said Meals on Wheels programs serving 600,000 elderly people were nearly out of money, 11 states had drained funds to administer unemployment insurance and renewal of housing vouchers for poor families was at risk.
In the court of public opinion Republicans took the bulk of the blame. They lost seats in Congress during the next election and watched Clinton be re-elected and take credit for a debt reduction plan that helped give the U.S. budget surpluses that lasted until after he left office in 2001.
Former U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, a Democrat who represented the Dayton area from 1979 to 2002, said his friends in Congress see no clear path out of the current mess because of an unwillingness to compromise. He said the two political parties have always had their differences, but he saw more bipartisanship during his years in Congress and in the wake of the last shutdown.
“We said we would never let this happen again. Our job was to keep this government running,” said Hall. “Most of those people — and I count myself as bipartisan — are not there anymore.”
The last shutdown occurred with Republicans having a majority in the House and Senate. There was no Affordable Care Act at issue. Instead the shutdown grew out of more traditional battles over the budget and debt reduction — both of which remain issues.
In the end, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., defied his House counterparts led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and spearheaded a Senate vote to reopen government. The House went along, having received assurances from Clinton that he would work with them on debt reduction.
At the time, Democrats had a better negotiator in Clinton than they have in President Barack Obama, said Paul Leonard, a Wright State University p0litical science professor and former Democratic lieutenant governor and Dayton mayor. And, said Leonard, unlike Gingrich or speakers before him, House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp. has not been able lead Republicans to a compromise with Democrats.
“The tail is wagging the dog in the Republican Caucus of the House of Representatives,” Leonard said.
Smith said the lesson of the 90’s shutdown — and this one — is that it is very hard to beat the president on an issue like this. It is harder still with the Republican party split and with both parties setting rigid ideological boundaries, he said.
Smith, Leonard and Hall all bemoaned politicians’ focus on their own careers and their political parties.
“I’d love to see a leader say, ‘I don’t care what this is going to do to me and do for my re-election, I’m going to do what’s best for the country,’ ” Hall said. “I think if somebody would really do that I think the people of this country would rally around that kind of leadership.”
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