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House Republicans Still Haven’t Learned Lessons from Their 1995 Government Shutdown

Closure sign at the Lincoln Memorial due to government shutdown

SOURCE: AP/ Mark Wilson

A sign hangs in the window of an information booth Saturday, Decemeber 16, 1995 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. announcing the temporary closure of the memorial due to the government shutdown.

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House Republicans have been contemplating their next move in the fiscal showdown this week as they huddle during their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia. There is a real sense of Armageddon in the air. President Obama took them on directly with respect to the central issue on their agenda, preserving low tax rates for high income individuals, and won—not by a little but by a lot.

This is a group that has always been challenged by the idea of compromise. They believe that the great moments in history have been won by those who stood their ground. For them, the New Year’s Day passage of legislation that avoided tax increases for most Americans and postponed automatic budget cuts was not a great moment. Worse still, they see the president continuing to hold the upper hand on the myriad of fiscal issues that remain unresolved despite the legislative deal, and their core supporters are becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to move the country in the direction they promised when swept to victory in the 2010 midterm elections.

House Republicans are desperate for a winning strategy, and it increasingly appears that they’ve decided to double down—to attempt to persuade the voters who they could not convince in the course of the fall campaign that the deficit is the paramount issue facing the United States, that it must be addressed by spending cuts rather than higher revenues, and that those spending cuts must occur even if it costs jobs and makes life more difficult in the near term for seniors and other Americans.

Republicans believe their best opportunity to connect with those not reached in their past two years of campaigning is to create a crisis that will refocus public attention on the deficit. And they have a grab bag of opportunities to create such a crisis, the first of which is that the country will run out of borrowing authority to pay its bills in the next four to six weeks if the House refuses to pass legislation lifting the debt ceiling.

A second situation requiring House action is that all government agencies may face an 11 percent to 12 percent cut in their monthly operating levels on March 1, including a number of high-profile agencies—such as the Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Aviation Administration—that have no practical means of achieving such budget reductions in the timeframe allotted. To avoid these so-called sequestration cuts, which result from a 2011 fight on Capitol Hill over the deficit, Congress will have to pass legislation sometime in February that suspends or further delays their onset.

Finally, much of government will run out of money entirely on March 27 if Congress fails to either pass a new budget bill or extend the current one through what is called a “continuing resolution.” While services necessary to protect life and property would continue to be funded, many other functions of the federal government—such as the National Park Service—would be largely shut down.

The opportunities for creating fiscal crises have therefore never been greater, and recent comments from a variety of House Republican members indicate that all three are on the table. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) recently told Politico that, “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card.” In the same article, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said that, “I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we’re serious … We always talk about whether or not we’re going to kick the can down the road. I think the mood is that we’ve come to the end of the road.”

But what’s at the end of the road? Are the American people now more inclined to buy into Republican policy prescriptions than they were a couple of months ago? Former Congressman and longtime congressional observer Lee Hamilton recently made this observation: “We learned a lot about Capitol Hill from the fiscal cliff episode, and not much of it is flattering.”

House Republicans seem even less well-positioned to benefit from a political “Hail Mary” now than when they were soundly defeated in November, but many Republican just don’t believe that. Less than two weeks ago, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) wrote in the Houston Chronicle that, “It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal wellbeing of our country.” He also commented that, “If we don’t reduce spending and reform our three biggest entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—then we will strangle economic growth, destroy jobs and reduce our standard of living.”

What happened in 1995, the previous time Republicans played the shutdown card? I remember it well as the Democratic Staff Director of the House Appropriations Committee and as someone who was often in the room when the two sides tried to reconcile differences. My view is that the Republicans not only lost the battle but also so seriously lost favor with the public that they could not hold their ground in budgetary confrontations for years to follow.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) remembers it as a disaster but believes it was largely the result of a tactical mistake by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA):

Gingrich made the mistake of his life. He told a room full of reporters that he forced the shutdown because Clinton had rudely made him and Bob Dole sit at the back of Air Force One … The New York Daily News carried the headline “Cry Baby” above a drawing of Newt as a screaming baby in diapers. Newt had been careless to say such a thing, and now the whole moral tone of the shutdown had been lost. What had been a noble battle for fiscal sanity began to look like the tirade of a spoiled child.

To this day, Rep. DeLay argues that the worst thing Republicans did in 1995 was “reopen the government.”

Even at the time that shutdown occurred, there was a contrary view of why the party lost public support—one that eventually attracted a large majority of the Republican Conference after months of bruising fiscal confrontations and defeats for the party. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) saw the party’s situation this way:

My position was, Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They’re the advocates of the government. It is perfectly logical to them that Republicans would shut it down, because we’re seen as antithetical to government. I said if there’s a shutdown, we’re going to get the blame.

To be sure, there is nothing written in law that says that a confrontation similar to one that took place nearly two decades ago will end up the same way this year. And Rep. DeLay is right in saying that mistakes by Speaker Gingrich tipped the scale and made it impossible for his side to win. But Rep. Armey is also right. Republicans—and particularly House Republicans—have real liabilities in winning this kind of fight, and it seems today’s House Republican Conference is at a remarkably low ebb for having the credibility to argue that they have a solution for just about any problem. Their threats of being irresponsible on not one but multiple issues enhances the liabilities they face in winning a battle for public opinion.

If House Republicans don’t grasp these facts and back away from the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, however, what can the president, the Senate, or the courts do to help out?

Under the Constitution—not much. As we sometimes grow tired of hearing, our forefathers gave us a system of checks and balances. If one part of the system breaks down or fails to responsibly exercise its role, the Constitution does not permit other parts of the system to move in and take over. They may inform the public of the shortcomings of the errant branch or body, but ultimately the elected officials under our Constitution are accountable only to the people who elected them, and it is the electorate that must force change or accept the consequence of failed policy.

Unfortunately, that is the situation we are in now: House Republicans are betting that middle-of-the-road voters will finally rally to their cause if they block the borrowing needed to pay the nation’s bills, if they force deep cuts that will dramatically affect critical government services ranging from air traffic control to law enforcement, or if they shut down major portions of government altogether. That is a bet that both history and common-sense tell us they are likely to lose, but it is the path they appear more and more likely to follow.

House Republicans can only follow that route if at least 218—the number needed to pass legislation in the House—of their 234 members in the House support it. Are there not 17 members left in the House Republican Conference moderate enough to recognize the disaster that is brewing for the country and their own party?

I think there are, but those members will face difficult choices in the weeks ahead. If they move too soon, they could end up among the long list of victims eviscerated by the Tea Party and other right-wing operations specializing in defeating moderate Republicans in party primaries. On the other hand, if they wait too long, they could not only be held responsible for doing major and irreparable damage to the United States and global economies, but also could alienate the party in future elections by creating the kind of deep-seated public backlash that will bring down Republican House candidates in districts that no one ever dreamed would go Democratic.

House Republicans in the next few weeks must weigh their options carefully and ultimately decide whether they want to join their fellow conference members at the Alamo.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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