US & Canada

The ghosts of the 1995-96 shutdown still haunt Washington

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole meet at the White House in April 1995.
Image caption Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton and Robert Dole faced off in the 1995-96 shutdown crisis

It was supposed to be the shutdown to end all shutdowns - a political beating so thorough that no politician would tread that path again, lest they meet a similar fate.

Eighteen years later, however, the federal government is again closed. Were lessons unlearned? Or has conventional wisdom been wrong all these years?

The shutdowns of 1995-96 came as a result of a confrontation between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The Republicans had swept to power in the midterm elections of 1994, ending 40 years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives and regaining a majority in the Senate. They claimed a popular mandate for their Contract With America, a collection of political pledges masterminded by Mr Gingrich that detailed sweeping cuts to discretionary government programmes, including welfare and health care for the poor and elderly.

Mr Clinton, fighting for political relevancy, dug in his heels and resisted, wielding his veto to block Congress' Contract-inspired budgets.

The first shutdown, in November 1995, was a five-day skirmish, ending when Mr Clinton agreed to a seven-year plan to balance the federal budget.

The second shutdown started in December and stretched into January 1996. Federal workers were furloughed without pay. National parks, monuments, and museums were closed. Passport applications and approximately 20,000-30,000 foreign visa applications went unprocessed each day. Veterans' services were curtailed.

The US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimated the cost of the two shutdowns at $1.4bn (£870m).

Twenty-one days later, the standoff ended with Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole striking a deal with Mr Clinton for relatively modest cuts. Mr Gingrich was chastened, lampooned in the press for blaming the shutdown in part on his poor treatment by the White House during a state trip to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.

For years, the budget showdowns of 1995-96 were almost universally perceived to be a rout, a cautionary tale for Republicans who would consider playing chicken with the federal budget. Mr Clinton went on to win an easy re-election over Mr Dole later that year, while Mr Gingrich would resign in 1999, chased from office by the Republican true believers he once led.

Of course, the reality is more complicated. Conventional wisdom is that the shutdowns caused the public to turn against the Republicans in Congress.

But a recent Pew Research Center review of its polls at the time shows that the Republicans were already losing support before the shutdowns began. In August 1995, approval for congressional Republicans had dropped from a 52% post-election high to 38%, where it largely would remain throughout the shutdown crises.

Recently, some Republican leaders have questioned more of the lessons from 1995-96.

Image caption Newt Gingrich was mocked for claims of poor treatment on Air Force One

"There are a great many Republicans who are haunted by the ghosts of shutdowns past," said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, playing the part of firebrand Mr Gingrich in today's confrontation. "It is received wisdom in Washington that the 1995 government shutdown was a terrible loss for Republicans, and we should never go there again. I don't believe the evidence supports that conclusion."

Sen Cruz, talking to a gathering of the faithful at the Heritage Foundation on July 30, gave a preview of the coming battle and explained why he thought this time would be different. Mr Clinton was a master strategist, while Mr Obama isn't.

Republicans didn't control the debate in 1995, but now they have "young leaders in the Senate" who can "drive a message". This time, instead of fighting for unpopular budget cuts, they're trying to defund Obama's health care reform.

There are other differences that Sen Cruz didn't mention, however. In 1995, Mr Clinton caused the shutdowns by vetoing Republican budgets. Now, thanks to a Democratic-controlled Senate, spending bills are stuck in Congress.

Then, Congress had already passed some appropriation bills, so parts of the government had funding. That's not the case today. In 1995, Mr Clinton was facing an uphill re-election fight and coming off a drubbing in the midterm elections. Today, Mr Obama is comfortably in his second term and his party just gained seats in Congress.

Sen Cruz is "nuts", wrote the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer. "Every fiscal showdown has redounded against the Republicans… How many times must we learn this lesson?"

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on July 29, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said any Republicans wondering about the results of a shutdown should talk to Mr Gingrich. "It was disastrous for Newt Gingrich, the Republicans, and the country," he said.

But these days, even the former speaker thinks the Republicans came out ahead after 1995. "While the shutdown produced some short-term pain, it set the stage for a budget deal in 1996 that led to the largest drop in federal discretionary spending since 1969," he wrote in a February 2011 Washington Post opinion piece.

He pointed to a single-digit loss of seats in the House of Representatives and net gain of two seats in the Senate in 1996 as evidence that the damage to Republicans from the shutdown had been overstated.

Early returns for Republicans this time around aren't encouraging, however. A post-shutdown poll by Quinnipiac University shows that 72% of Americans oppose shuttering the government to block health care reform. Approval for congressional Republicans is at 17% - their lowest score in the history of the poll.

If Republicans are going to turn things around, and prove that the ghosts of 1995 have been exorcised, they have got their work cut out for them.