I began work as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore on Nov. 13, 1995, one day before the first of two government shutdowns that year. I arrived to find a stack of furlough forms on my desk; I spent the day introducing myself to new colleagues . . . and laying them off. Throughout the building unease was palpable: People had bills to pay, and junior White House staffers had little cushion in their bank accounts.
Too many in government faced, and narrowly escaped, that same fate last week. The prospect of future shutdowns still looms, and the pain from a shutdown of any duration would be widespread. Effects of the 1995 shutdown included a halt in toxic cleanups at more than 600 sites; delays in deploying hundreds of new border agents and processing more than 200,000 passports; and closure of more than 300 parks, with losses to the tourism economy.
How did we get to the brink? And what lessons can we apply from the past to ensure this scenario doesn’t arise again?
There would be no political winners in a shutdown. Many Democrats recall the 1995 shutdown as a pivotal point in the Clinton presidency — the moment when his political comeback was cinched and the GOP began its slide to defeat in 1996. But the truth is more complicated. President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings fell during the shutdown and rose again only after the government reopened. The GOP’s political debacle stemmed in large part from Newt Gingrich’s comment that the shutdown was “payback” for a bad seat on Air Force One — a remark that former representative Tom DeLay later described as causing “the whole moral tone of the shutdown [to be] lost.” While Democrats emerged from this confrontation with a strong hand, there is no guarantee that a future crisis will end well. Undisciplined mistakes could foil their party as easily as the GOP.
Republicans would approach the next juncture in an even weaker position. Recent events showed that some learned from the severe political fallout from the 1995 shutdown, but others still believe the real mistake was compromising with Clinton to end the standoff. House Speaker John Boehner said last week that “there’s no daylight between the Tea Party and me,” just a day after Tea Party protesters chanted “shut it down, shut it down” near his office. And this deal didn’t make it less likely the speaker will reach one next time.
President Obama won this round, navigating difficult currents to take command of the situation and protecting nascent economic growth.
But this economy will continue to be far more fragile than the one Clinton managed during the confrontation in 1995, so simply putting this crisis behind us isn’t enough.
To lessen the odds of a repeat when the current year’s appropriations inevitably remain unfinished this fall, the president should do four things.
First, he has to continue to drive home — as he has in recent days — what the American people have at stake in a government shutdown. Obama must seize the moment, as Clinton did in 1996, to prepare for future confrontations; highlighting the Tea Party’s lusty cheering for a shutdown underscores both an ideological zeal that is indifferent to a shutdown’s real-world effects, and a contrast that can shape the governing and political dynamic for the final two years of his term.
Second, he should use this reprieve to direct his advisers to reexamine the basic legal framework for any future government shutdown: a January 1981 memo from outgoing Attorney General Ben Civiletti, and a subsequent directive from the Office of Management and Budget, that created the dichotomy that sends most federal workers home in a shutdown, except those whose activities are deemed “essential.” The attorney general could preemptively broaden the list of activities considered essential, substantially lessening the stakes in future standoffs. A 1990 amendment to the relevant federal statute narrowed room for creative interpretation of the law, but in the 1995 shutdown Clinton authorized 50,000 workers to return to their jobs, saying that their processing of Social Security and veterans benefit applications was “essential” to avoid a soaring backlog. A similar expansion of the definition of “essential activities” would minimize the portion of the government that could be held hostage in a future stalemate.
Third, he can explore the path employed to end the U.S. government shutdown in January 1996 — which ended not with a year-long agreement to fund the government (that didn’t come until April) but with a continuing resolution that included language categorizing all activities by federal workers as essential, allowing them to return to work even when funding expired. Putting such a measure in place now, in advance of the next crisis period, would ensure that workers remain on the job even when future battles over policy riders and spending levels rage.
Finally, the president should use the momentum gained in this confrontation to press for enactment of an automatic continuing resolution that would keep the entire federal government functioning at the prior year’s spending level when no other funding plan is in place. Congress has passed the regular appropriations bills on time in fewer than 10 of the past 60 years; the odds of success this year are remote. Tolerating unmanaged uncertainty about government funding is like walking around Washington in April without an umbrella: You will get wet; the only question is when.
President Obama averted disaster this time. But steps must be explored to prevent such near misses in the future.
The writer served as chief of staff to Vice President Biden from 2009 to 2011 and to Vice President Al Gore from 1995 to 1999.