There have been 17 so-called shutdowns of the government since 1976 according to the Washington Post in a piece by Dylan Matthews that was updated September 25, 2013. The current crisis is the 18th. But not all shutdowns were created equal. Most were limited to a few days and did not involve shutting down all departments of government. The severity of the crisis depended on the scope of the shutdown as well as its duration. In some instances it is more useful to call them “spending gaps,” rather than shutdowns.
It is important to remember, however, that the shutdowns have to do with appropriations bills that fund the government. The power of the purse is the greatest constitutional power of Congress. Presidents cannot spend one dime unless the money is authorized by Congress. It is the main function of Congress to pass appropriations bills. To do this central task the House and Senate are divided into major committees and subcommittees to work through 13 annual appropriations bills which are supposed to be completed by October 1 each year, the beginning of the government fiscal year.
When Congress runs out of time before budget negotiations are agreed to by both House and Senate, the usual device is to keep government running by passing a “continuing resolution” which funds the government at the previous years’ levels until new numbers are negotiated. If no agreement occurs on a “CR” as they are called, the government runs out of money and cannot pay government employees or keep them working unless they have been deemed to be essential. We cannot, for example, leave nuclear weapons unguarded, nor can we fail to fund military personnel in harms way.
A year later, in 1977, with President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, in office, and with both houses of Congress in Democratic Party control, three partial shutdowns occurred beginning at the end of September for 12 days, then for 8 days the first week of November, and then another eight days finally ending on Dec. 9. All three instances involved a dispute over the extent of funding for abortions in Medicaid and whether such funding should be extended beyond the sole reason of saving the life of the mother to include abortions in the case of incest or rape. Republicans in the House, though in the minority, were strongly in favor of limiting the funds to only cover cases involving the life of the mother. This position had support from some conservative Democrats, especially those from districts in the South. Between each spending gap, bills for temporary funding were passed to give more time to resolve the issue.
President Carter figured in another lengthy shutdown in 1979, with Democrats in charge of both House and Senate, when he vetoed a defense bill that made provisions for nuclear aircraft carrier that he did not want to fund. Another public works appropriations bill was vetoed as well because it contained what Carter considered to be pork-barrel legislation. This lasted 18 days until Congress sent a new defense bill for his signature that left out the aircraft carrier and the water works projects.
But the last Big Shutdown of consequence occurred seventeen years ago and unfolded in two parts with the first shutdown lasting just 5 days, with phase two, about two weeks later, lasting 21 days. This is the shutdown that most directly relates to the current shutdown of 2013. No one can predict just yet if the shutdown of 2013 will last as long, or if it will be as economically damaging to the nation or how it will impact political parties and the ability of the House and Senate to deliver annual appropriations bills in a regular and timely manner. But it is clear that the longer there is no resolution the great the damage to the country.
The budget battle heated up considerably when the President Clinton vetoed an appropriations bill with budget cuts amounting to more than $16 billion on June 8, 1995. He argued that some of the cuts to education funding and social programs were too steep. Since the Republicans did not have the necessary votes to override the veto, budget negotiations resumed but had not completed most appropriations bills before the Oct. 1 deadline.
To keep government running the Republican controlled Congress passed a Continuing Resolution to fund the government and sent it to the president for his signature. Attached to the CR were provisions to require the president to submit a balanced budget within seven years, to limit certain environmental regulations, and increase Medicare premiums. The president again vetoed the bill and sent it back to Congress on November 13, 1995.
Byrd blamed Republicans for loading up the appropriations bills “with items from the Republicans’ so-called ‘Contract With America.’” The Contract was the brainchild of Newt Gingrich. It was a campaign package of popular conservative measures that he promised to pass within 100 days if the Republicans gained control of the House. The Contract With America was not a very realistic legislative package to get passed through Congress and be signed into law by a Democratic president. It contained mostly items of interest to the Republican base. But it was a surprisingly effective device for rallying Republicans in the House and helping them to gain majority status.
After blaming Gingrich’s Contract With America, Byrd reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a copy of the U. S. Constitution. “Now, Mr. President,” he said, waving the Constitution, “this is my ‘Contract With America.’ I keep it in my shirt pocket all my waking hours, Sundays included. It is the Constitution of the United States. It is pretty well-worn. It only cost 19 cents when I first gained possession of it….” Then he said “There is no constitutional requirement that we enact the so-called ‘Contract With America.’ But we are required by the Constitution of the United States to enact appropriation bills and only Congress may enact appropriation bills.”
Senator Byrd explained that President Clinton had vetoed the continuing resolution because it contained all the extraneous bills that Republicans wanted to quickly pass. “It is incumbent upon the Congress,” Byrd continued, “to enact a clean continuing resolution and a clean debt limit increase without adding controversial and unnecessary legislative riders to either.”
What was obvious to Senator Byrd was that the “grand strategy of the Republican majority in Congress was to threaten to shut down the Government and force a default on our debt in order to coerce the president into accepting their Contract items and their budget and Medicare cuts.” He cited Speaker Gingrich’s statement of June 3, 1995, to the Rocky Mountain News, where the Speaker said : “We’re going to go over the liberal Democratic part of the Government and then say to them: ‘We could last 60 days, 90 days, 120 days, 5 years, a century.’ There’s a lot of stuff we don’t care if it’s ever funded.” Gingrich expressed similar sentiments in Time magazine in the June 5, 1995 issue, where he stated that President Clinton “can run the parts of the Government that are left” after the Republicans cut the budget.
In addition to forcing the shutdown, Speaker Gingrich’s response the President Clinton’s vetoes was to say: “The president will veto a number of things and we’ll then put them on the debt ceiling, and then he’ll decide how big a crisis he wants.” This was the first time that any Speaker had threatened that the appropriations process could be linked to the debt ceiling, which affected the ability of the United States to pay its bills or to continue to borrow money. Earlier shutdowns had involved adding pet legislative projects on appropriations bills, or simply because of disagreements in the level of spending having nothing directly to do with the debt ceiling.
The shutdown of Nov. 13-19, 1995, was resolved when President Clinton, Speaker Gingrich, and Senate Majority Leader Dole agreed to fund the government at 75% levels for a month, to allow time for further negotiations. The debt ceiling issue was resolved temporarily at least when the government was funded.
When that month of breathing room did not result in an agreement, the government shut down again on Dec. 5, 1995, and did not resume until January 6, 1996, a period of 21 days. The sticking point was the lack of agreement between Congress and the president over the means of achieving a balanced budget in seven years. The Contract With America had called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Public pressure played the key role in causing the House Republicans to finally concede to pass the necessary appropriations to keep the government open.
Senator Byrd was never opposed to the idea of a balanced budget, but he strongly objected to forcing the issue of a balanced budget provision onto appropriations bills or by trying to create a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. In his autobiography, Senator Byrd quoted his 1995 interview in the New York Times where he said of the balanced budget amendment: “This is government by slogans. What we are doing is writing into the Constitution a slogan. What we see happening here is a determined effort, perhaps unknowingly on the part of some, to change our form of government.” [Robert C.Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields, 597, see also, David Corbin, The Last Great Senator, 247-48].