As Congress Parties Like it's 1995, Government Shutdown on the Way?

This past weekend, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution to cut $61 billion from President Obama's budget for 2011. Needless to say, Democrats hate it, and the legislation faces much higher hurdles on its way to becoming a law. But should the Senate reject or Obama veto, Republicans have promised not to reauthorize spending once the government runs out of money—in two weeks. If that happens, the federal government will essentially stop working.

Talk of a government shutdown has turned attention back in time, and with good reason. A budget standoff and subsequent gridlock occurred in 1995 under nearly identical circumstances as those that fomented today's looming crisis.

At least, the political circumstances were nearly identical. You have a Democratic president and a Republican House of Representatives, and Congress failed to pass a budget in time for the new fiscal year. Republicans seek huge cuts to domestic programs. The president wants to increase the debt limit in order to continue spending without putting the country in default; Republican leadership threatens to block such a measure if they don't see the spending reductions they like.

In the 2011 revival, the part of Bill Clinton will be played by Barack Obama. John Boehner has been cast as Newt Gingrich.

The United States government seems to be most efficient at repeating itself. Deadlock between the executive and legislative branches during the mid-1990s forced federal agencies to stop spending money. It's in the Constitution, Article I, Section 9: "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law." If the government can't pass a budget, it can't spend any cash.

In 1995, that meant hundreds of thousands of government employees were furloughed. The Office of Personnel Management determined which personnel were "non-essential" and had them stay home: no work, no paychecks. (As one might expect, law enforcement and emergency services are usually deemed "essential" and insulated.) Social Security payments were delayed and many services halted. National parks and museums had to close, resulting in a surplus of elephant excrement, in some cases.

President Clinton's administration said that the shutdown cost the federal government about $400 million in back payments to public employees once normal operations resumed—this for only 26 days of gridlock. Not only does a government shutdown result in the suspension of government services: once the dust settles, the taxpayer ends up shelling out a lot more for nothing.

We don't know what a shutdown would look like today. The politics haven't changed much, but the structure of government has. Agencies have been created, axed, and consolidated. Many of the organizations that have been born since 1995 operate in the interest of national defense, including the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, so decisions about "essential" personnel would likely be more complicated. The number of government employees is about the same, if not slightly higher, but about 60 million people receive Social Security benefits today, whereas only 44 million were on the rolls in 1995. In general, we have a lot more commitments, or we're spending a lot more for our commitments in 2011 than we were in 1995.

What started all this? November victories still fresh in their memory, Republicans rolled into Congress with a perceived mandate from the American people: cut government spending, by any means necessary (just like in the mid-1990s). Energized in part by a young freshman contingent, 87 GOPers and Tea Partiers strong, Republicans didn't waste any time proposing large and controversial blows to many of the political left's favorite expenditures.

House leadership touts their $61 billion figure as one of the largest spending reductions in the history of Congress, but it's actually a lot smaller than some Republicans had hoped for. Initially, the continuing resolution called for $100 billion in cuts; meanwhile, in the Senate, Kentucky's Rand Paul has been shouting that a whopping $500 billion needed to go.

Republicans reach the $61 billion mark by defunding provisions of the new health care law, tightening the reins on the EPA, scrapping funding for public broadcasting*, and doing away with moneys for other advisory and regulatory agencies. That sentence could have ended with "health care law," and it would have been enough to send Democrats to the trenches. President Obama's team does not want to see their biggest and most hard-fought legislative victory unravelled less than a year later.

But all the cuts pain Democrats, and last fall's bruises have since turned to sores.

Each side will blame the other if there is a shutdown. Democrats say that it would be the Republicans' fault for demanding a ransom that they knew would not be paid. What's more, the GOP-controlled House will ultimately be responsible for refusing to implement another stopgap measure and keep government running—Dems argue that they won't be the ones deciding not to pay salaries and Social Security benefits. Republicans, on the other hand, say that the only ones talking about a government shutdown are Democrats, who knew these proposals were coming and yet still refuse to believe that the electorate wants Republicans to chop away.

In 1995, when the two parties last played chicken with the budget, Democrats came out on top. A gaffe from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich made it appear to the public that Republicans had forced the shutdown over juvenile drama. (Gingrich reportedly felt slighted by having to sit at the back of Air Force One—not exactly grounds for grinding government to a halt.) President Clinton's approval ratings had never been higher than they were during the standoff, and he easily won reelection the next year.

2011 has all the makings of a similar story, and the coincidences are compounded by the fact that this is taking place at almost the exact same point in the election cycle for an incumbent president seeking reelection. If 1995 is any indication, and a government shutdown indeed happens again, it's a good bet that one side will come out looking gravy, and the other will face an unfriendly White House for the next four years.

*Editor’s note: New York Public Radio, which operates WNYC and WQXR, receives more than $3 million in annual operating funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as support for The Takeaway and community outreach.