More Myths About the Government Shutdown

Young people often don’t realize that government shutdowns used to be common, until the middle of the Clinton administration. The George W. Bush presidency was an exception to the rule. The Miami Herald’s Glenn Garvin debunks some of the myths promoted by “the chattering classes” (such as left-leaning Washington Post and New York Times columnists) to people too young to remember earlier shutdowns, and people with bad memories.

• This kind of thing never used to happen. Actually, it used to happen all the time. What’s unusual is the quiet stretch since the last shutdown, when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were facing off in 1995. Before that, there were 18 shutdowns in 19 years as various Congresses and presidents squabbled over raising the national debt limit. My personal favorite is the one in 1982, when Congress didn’t feel like working late to pass a spending bill the night before the new fiscal year started. The Republicans were all going to a barbecue at the White House, while the Democrats had a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner to attend.

• Well, it wouldn’t happen if not for all these crazy ideologues who’ve been elected the last few years. In the old days, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would have just had a drink after work and settled everything.

More likely they would have broken some bottles over one another’s heads. The federal government shut down seven times while Reagan was president and O’Neill speaker of the House. No wonder, the way they talked about each other.

O’Neill called Reagan “an absolute and total disgrace” and added that it was “sinful that this man is president of the United States.” Reagan, in his diary, wrote that budget negotiations with the speaker were an ordeal because “Tip O’Neill doesn’t have the facts of what was in the budget. Besides he doesn’t listen.”

• Maybe arguments over spending are inevitable. But it’s just plain wrong to hold laws on other subjects hostage to debt-ceiling negotiations, the way the Republicans are doing with Obamacare.

Over the years, government shutdowns have been triggered by attempts to change the laws on, among other things, abortion, civil rights, welfare, oil-drilling and which government agency’s economic forecast should be used for budget planning. And even if you think debt-ceiling fights should be restricted just to spending issues, the fact is that virtually everything Congress or the president does can be turned into a spending issue, because it all requires funding. . . . The Founding Fathers not only foresaw but approved of this tactic. . . . James Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, was quite explicit: ‘This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.’”

(Boldface added for emphasis; more myths discussed at this link). People who think government used to be better at avoiding shutdowns and defaults are forgetting about past episodes of government dysfunction, like in 1979 “when the Treasury defaulted for two weeks over a debt limit increase delay and technical problems with its computers. It caused a 60-basis point rise in interest rates that lasted for years, according to academic research.” In 1979, Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, so you can’t blame that default on the Tea Party.

Garvin also notes that although it is referred to as a “government shutdown,” it’s at most a partial shutdown, since “85 or so percent of the government is still functioning,” “The NSA is still reading your email,” and “The Postal Service is still running your magazines through shredders.” (And, of course, both Fannie and Freddie, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau spawned by the m0nstrously complex Dodd-Frank law, are still operating.)

Not all shutdowns are alike. First, the GOP has a weaker bargaining position in this shutdown than in many past ones (since it controls just one house of Congress, and there are essentially no conservative Democrats left in Congress, since the departure or defection of the “Boll Weevil” conservative Democrats who were present in past Congresses).

Second, the Obama administration has been perhaps more willing to play hardball to exacerbate the pain of the government shutdown than the more moderate Clinton administration was. The Obama administration has used the partial government shutdown as an excuse to shut down, or block access to, many private businesses and non-profits that operate on, or near, public land, which some lawyers say is illegal executive branch overreaching, and some law professors have also said is legally dubious. The result appears to be lost jobs and violated property rights. Warren Meyer of Recreation Resource Management says that the “U.S. Forest Service, under pressure apparently from the White House,” decided to “close over 1000 public parks and campgrounds that are operated by private companies without using one dime of public money,” even though in doing so, it “reversed both its historical precedent” and the legal “position” it took as recently as Oct. 1.

The Obama administration also closed open-air monuments and memorials, even those that are traditionally open even when unstaffed, and it has spent more money to close some of them — such as renting costly barricades — than it would take to keep them open.)