Throwback Thursday: Petty party politics and the government shutdown

Sara Reinsch

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a weekly series in which The Daily Texan looks back at something it covered in its 113-year-old history.

One of the biggest competitions in party politics surfaces near the end of each fiscal year.

In a game of high-stakes political chicken, Republicans and Democrats stand firm in backing federal budget positions they may or may not support. This year, party leaders raised the stakes, pushing the federal government into its second-longest shutdown to date.

November 1981 saw the first-ever federal government shutdown under former President Ronald Reagan. The shutdown — a result of disagreements between Reagan, the House and the Senate regarding funding cuts to social programs and foreign aid — furloughed an estimated 400,000 federal government employees for half a day, according to two United Press International articles printed in The Daily Texan on Nov. 23 and 24. The Nov. 24 article called Reagan’s quick shutdown of nonessential government services a “dramatic gesture.”

Reagan signed a $400 million temporary funding bill on Nov. 23, ending the shutdown less than 12 hours after he vetoed a $427.9 million congressional compromise.

“Several members of Congress said approval of the three-week stopgap was as much a sign of Congress’ desire to go home for Thanksgiving holiday as it was a major win for Reagan,” the Nov. 24 article said.

Prior to 1980, government agencies’ nonessential duties were only minimized when the president and Congress failed to agree on an aspect of the federal budget, a period known as a funding gap. But in the early ’80s, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two interpretations of the 1870 Antideficiency Act — which had, up until that point, prohibited the government from spending more than was allotted in the budget. This led to the creation of government shutdowns, as the attorney general’s opinions asserted that, in accordance with the act, nonessential government agencies must be suspended during funding gaps.

In the 30 years since their inception, only a few shutdowns have occurred in the U.S. — the longest and most memorable being the December 1995 to January 1996 shutdown. In November 1995, the government shut down for six days because of disagreements between former President Bill Clinton, the House and the Senate about cuts to social program funding, including education cuts.

Tensions between the two parties manifested during the shutdown, with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, claiming that Clinton’s mistreatment of him and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole during a recent trip had contributed to the budget standoff, a Nov. 16 Daily Texan article said. Alternately, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle blamed Gingrich.

“He wants chaos,” Daschle said of Gingrich in the article. “He wants collapse of the government, and now he’s got it.”

The November 1995 shutdown ended when Clinton and Congress agreed to attempt to balance the budget in seven years, continue debates about the budget and temporarily continue government agency funding in an agreement known as a continuing resolution.

The continuing resolution expired Dec. 15, and a second shutdown began — this time spanning 21 days. In January, Clinton and Congress agreed to a seven-year budget plan with modest spending cuts and tax increases. The shutdown came to a close at a cost to the Republican Party, which a majority of Americans blamed for the shutdown.

In this year’s shutdown Democrats and Republicans held tight to opposing agendas, resulting in a temporary extension on the debt limit and halt on the shutdown. So while the players may change over the years, results stemming from political differences many times don’t.