Sorry, Chris Matthews: Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were terrible at averting shutdowns

September 26, 2013
Scott Stewart/Associated Press President Ronald Reagan talks with Democrat House Speaker Thomas “Tip”  O’Neill Jr. in the Oval Office of the White House in 1985.
President Ronald Reagan talks with Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. in the Oval Office of the White House in 1985. (Scott Stewart/AP)

Today's "Playbook" e-mail from Politico starts with an excerpt from Chris Matthews's new book, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked," about the relationship between Matthews's former boss, House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.), and President Ronald Reagan.

Matthews argues that O'Neill and Reagan's relationship represented a now-gone era of bipartisan cooperation, where things got done. "During this period, government met its deadlines," Matthews writes. "Members of Congress listened and acted. Debates led to solutions. Shutdowns were averted."

The government shut down seven times when O'Neill was speaker and Reagan was president. And they were real shutdowns, too, given that they occurred after Jimmy Carter's attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, issued opinions in 1980 and 1981 saying that funding gaps had to lead to at least partial shutdowns of government functions. Five quasi-shutdowns happened before those opinions under O'Neill's watch, with Carter as president. And one more shutdown happened under Reagan and O'Neill's successor as speaker, Jim Wright.

If your metric for quality governance is "ability to avoid shutdowns," then Reagan is absolutely the worst president of the modern era. The government shut down eight times under his watch, more than any other president, representing nearly half of all shutdowns that have occurred under the modern budget process. And O'Neill is an even worse speaker, if that's our criterion. He presided over 12 funding gaps or shutdowns, or almost 71 percent of all shutdowns to date.

Obviously, there are better governance metrics than that. But if Matthews wants to make the case that the Reagan/O'Neill era was some golden age of quality government, he really shouldn't bring up government shutdowns.

Related: All 17 government previous government shutdowns, why they happened and how they ended.

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