Lessons from the '95 government shutdown

By Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Sunday, February 27, 2011

I've seen this movie before.

To a veteran of the 104th Congress, today's political environment looks all too familiar: an embattled president unwilling to embrace entitlement reform; newly elected House Republicans focused on an early budget showdown; senators from both parties signaling a willingness to compromise; and liberal Democrats bemoaning the cold-hearted conservatives' willingness to cut heating subsidies for the poor.

There are parallels, too, with the nation's unsettled political environment, as an energized group of Republicans seeks to remake Washington, while reeling Democrats look for the right moment to wage a counteroffensive.

Consider the respective presidential challenges: In 1995, a new congressional majority was advertising its Contract With America, while a damaged Clinton administration was desperate to rebound from its midterm drubbing.

As tensions rise and the threat of another federal government shutdown looms, this is a good time to revisit the lessons of 1996 - an episode that effectively stopped the conservative revolution of that era.

First, understand that House liberals will do what they always do - demonize discretionary spending cuts. Talk of entitlement reform will stoke their fires even more. Already, accusations of "draconian," "meat cleaver" cuts are being hurled. The emotion is real - a vast majority of left-leaning members believe that the federal government has an unlimited role to play in Americans' daily lives. For people in this group, the new reality is especially difficult given that they controlled both houses of Congress a few months ago.

For the president, the negative reviews of his budget proposal by editorial boards and pundits on the left and the right are not a big deal. He has dealt the cards; now, it is up to the Republicans to answer.

The Republican response circa 1996 was "our way or the highway." I recall our internal caucus discussions quite clearly: We were elected to lead, we know entitlements are spinning out of control and the president is unwilling to budge, so let's stand firm on principle.

Even today, I continue to believe we were right in our high-stakes attempt to control entitlement costs. Witness the unrestrained entitlement growth over the past 15 years.

Our problem was twofold: Many moderate members of Congress had no taste for "shutdown" politics; they began to leave the reservation in the aftermath of harsh media coverage and public union opposition. And, of course, there was the master manipulator Bill Clinton, always ready, willing and able to summon the "courage" to stop mean-spirited Republicans. The unpleasant results? Political momentum was stopped, entitlement reform was postponed and Clinton was reelected.

In the arena of political poker, the president always carries a mighty large stick. He alone speaks for one branch of government, while so many independent contractor-legislators seek to draw attention away from the leadership and onto themselves.

A thought for my former colleagues: Allow your leaders to lead. They are veterans at budget showdowns, but understand the difference between 1995 and 2011. Entitlement reform was not hot in 1995. Conversely, the 2010 midterms were all about a return to fiscal sanity. Witness the budget battles in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and other states.

Today, huge budget shortfalls scare people - they are more tangible to the average taxpayer. And not just to taxpayers, as high-profile Senate Democrats such as Kent Conrad and Mark Warner seek to join the entitlement reform train.

All this ratchets up pressure on the president - and he can ill afford to bet on a 1995 Clintonian repeat. Today's economic indicators reflect sustained high levels of unemployment and endless budget deficits. This time around, a populist dismissal of "cold-hearted Republicans" and their "anti-union agenda" will not do. If such is President Obama's choice, he may indeed be a one-term president.

The ball is in the president's court. The people appear ready for truth in budgeting. Will he choose to lead?

The writer, a Republican, was governor of Maryland from 2003 through 2007. He served in the Maryland General Assembly from 1987 to 1995 and in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2003.

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