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Lessons from the great government shutdown of 1995-1996

Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/25/2011; Lessons clearly NOT learned

"There's a very good possibility that government will shut down. I know the Democrats have their talking points lined up. They'll blame us for everything. What will we do?"
--Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), Feb. 22, 2011

With a March 4 deadline looming on extending a stopgap spending bill, both Republicans and Democrats are preparing for the possibility of a federal government shutdown. Interestingly, a new poll of political insiders reveals that Republicans overwhelmingly believe that a government shutdown is not in their interest. Democrats, by contrast, believe a government shutdown would benefit their party.

The reason? The great government shutdown of 1995-1996, in which a weakened President Bill Clinton faced off against determined Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- and won. Take a look at the classic New York Daily News cover from that period (above) as evidence of how the Republicans lost control of their message. The Republican Revolution died that day.

John Boehner, the current speaker, was the No. 4 Republican in the House leadership during Gingrich's heyday. By many accounts, the experience of living through that shutdown has deeply affected him. Assuming Boehner can maintain control of his caucus, that alone makes it less likely a shutdown will happen this year.

The Fact Checker covered the budget battles of 1995-1996 and so had a front-row seat to the GOP debacle. What lessons can the Republicans draw from that experience? As part of our effort to provide background context for issues current in the news, let's examine the history.

The Facts

The government shutdown took place in two phases. The first lasted five days in November 1995, until the White House agreed to congressional demands to balance the budget within seven years. But talks on implementing that agreement failed, and the second shutdown lasted 21 days, from Dec. 15, 1995 to Jan. 6. 1996. (Then a blizzard struck Washington and local federal workers could not get back to work for days after that.)

The sticking point was the GOP demand that Clinton agree to their version of a balanced budget. In months of negotiations, Clinton had actually given a far amount of ground, infuriating Democrats on the left. He agreed to a balanced budget over seven years, to tax cuts, to changes in mandatory spending programs such as Medicare. But the two sides were remained far apart on the pace of spending cuts -- and even further apart on the policies behind those cuts.

Clinton's trump card was the veto. Under the Constitution, Congress must muster a two-thirds majority to overcome a presidential veto. So Gingrich had loudly proclaimed that he had a tool to confront the veto: the government shutdown.

"He can run the parts of the government that are left, or he can run no government," Gingrich told Time magazine reporters six months before the first shutdown. "Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?"

That was the first mistake the Republicans made: They appeared to be too eager for a confrontation, while Clinton constantly emphasized he was willing to compromise within reason. Then Gingrich told reporters he stopped funding the government in part because Clinton made him exit from the rear of Air Force One when they returned from attending the funeral of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. That comment just made Republicans appear petty.

In the end, after weeks of turmoil, the Republicans meekly gave up and eventually cut a deal with Clinton that was not much different than what they could have gotten before the shutdown.

Clinton used the episode as the springboard for his successful reelection campaign, and he humiliated Republicans for it during his 1996 State of the Union speech. He singled out for praise a man seated next to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- Social Security Administration worker Richard Dean, who had survived the Oklahoma City bombing and rescued three people from the devastated Murrah Federal Building.

As Republicans stood and applauded Dean's heroism, Clinton pulled out the knife, recounting how Dean was forced out of his office during the first shutdown and had to work without pay in the second one. "Never, ever, shut the federal government down again," the president scolded.

After that, Clinton never lagged in the polls again.

When a balanced-budget agreement was finally reached a couple of years later, it was almost entirely on Clinton's terms. It is remembered as his achievement, not that of the Republicans who had pressed so hard for it.

For Republicans, here are the key lessons.

Don't lose control of your message. Gingrich made a tactical mistake by appearing too eager to shut down the government, then compounded it by saying he furloughed 800,000 workers because of a perceived slight. Clinton, by contrast, never wavered from his key point -- he was willing to make a deal as long as it did not violate core principles.

Don't get hung up on the numbers. In 1995, the 73 freshmen Republicans, about half of whom had never held public office, had been particularly reluctant to compromise on issues such as a $245 billion tax cut. But budget numbers are quite squishy to begin with, subject to wide variation in the later years of a multi-year budget because of factors such as economic growth and inflation. In calling for a shutdown, Republicans had rejected Clinton's offer of a $81 billion tax cut as inadequate -- and then ended up swallowing a $91 billion tax cut in the 1997 balanced budget deal.

Accept the winning headline. Gingrich and his Republicans had actually achieved a great victory by the end of the first shutdown. Newspaper headlines proclaimed: "President Agrees to Balance Budget in Seven Years." The rub, of course, is that there still were serious differences over policies and which budgetary numbers to use. But the irony is that if Republicans had quit while they were ahead, compromising on some issues, they -- and not Clinton -- would have won the credit for the balanced budget that emerged within years because of overflowing government revenues from the technology boom.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. Constitution is designed to promote compromise. If both parties are in control of branches of government, neither side can forever insist on nonnegotiable demands.

In retrospect, Republican lawmakers in 1995 had fallen prey to listening only to their own "echo chamber" and did not understand how their actions were being perceived outside Republican fundraisers and caucus meetings. A more logical course would have been to achieve smaller victories that would have preserved their majority. Assuming Clinton had been defeated in 1996, a Republican president could have then pushed ahead with the more revolutionary agenda.

Democrats obviously hope that Republicans once again fall into a similar trap of their own making. The House bill cutting $61 billion from this year's budget has the seeds of such a failure, because there are significant policy choices -- on such issues as family-planning funding and the environment -- that will be difficult to reconcile with the policy agenda of a Democratic-led Senate and White House.

House Republicans today are in a weaker bargaining position than the Republicans of 1995, because they do not also control the Senate. It will be fascinating to see whether this makes them more or less likely to heed the lessons of history.

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