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Should Founding Fathers share blame for budget gridlock? Probably

Monday, September 30, 2013 | 4:45 p.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2013
In this Jan. 4, 1996, file photo the sun gleams down on the still-closed Washington Monument as the federal budget impasse continued in Washington. The potential for a shutdown is a quirk of American history.

WASHINGTON — OK, gridlocked politicians we're used to. But why padlock the Statue of Liberty?

You don't see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants home just because their political parties can't get along. Belgian civil servants, for example, carried on nicely for a year and a half while their politicians bickered over forming a new government.

The potential for a partial shutdown Tuesday is a quirk of American history. So if you're bored with blaming House Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some responsibility on the Founding Fathers.

Or blame President Jimmy Carter for his rectitude. Or ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his hissy fit over how he exited Air Force One.

A history of government shutdowns, American-style:

1789: Balance of powers

The framers of the Constitution gave Congress control over spending as a way to limit the power of the presidency. The government can only spend money "in consequence of appropriations made by law," or in other words, after Congress says so and with the president's signature.

1800s: Power struggles

Turns out it's not easy to shoo federal bureaucrats away from the piggy bank.

When they wanted to spend more than Congress gave, the War Department and other agencies ordered stuff on credit. Then they would go to Congress seeking an appropriation to pay the bills. Lawmakers felt obliged to cover the government's debts, but they weren't happy about it. The executive branch was undermining Congress's power of the purse.

Congress responded with a series of laws that eventually got one of those dreadful Washington monikers: the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who mistakenly spend money Congress hasn't OK'd face disciplinary action, ranging from firing to hours stuck in mind-numbing budget training. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

But willful overspending is a crime that carries the threat of fines and two years in prison.

1900s: A delicate balance

The Anti-Deficiency Act seems clear. But as usual, Congress sent mixed messages. Lawmakers routinely failed to pass most of each year's dozen or so appropriations bills on time. Sometimes agencies went a full year without a budget. Usually lawmakers would smooth that over with a short-term money approval, called a "continuing resolution" in Washington-speak.

Sometimes Congress couldn't even agree on those: Stopgap resolutions got tangled up for days or a couple of weeks in political fights over matters such as abortion, foreign aid or congressional pay raises. Sort of like the current fight over health care.

But government agencies didn't shut down, and Cabinet secretaries weren't led away in handcuffs.

Agency chiefs might delay workers' pay and put items such as travel and new contracts on hold. But they assumed Congress didn't want them to turn off the lights and go home. Eventually lawmakers would cough up a spending bill to retroactively paper over the funding gap.

1980: An inconvenient truth

This look-the-other-way system worked for decades. Until the Carter administration.

A stickler for the rules, Carter asked his attorney general to look into the Anti-Deficiency Act. In April 1980, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued a startling opinion. "The legal authority for continued operations either exists or it does not," he wrote.

When it does not, government must send employees home. They can't work for free or with the expectation that they will be paid someday.

What's more, Civiletti declared, any agency chief who broke that law would be prosecuted.

Five days later, funding for the Federal Trade Commission expired amid a congressional disagreement over limiting the agency's powers. The FTC halted operations, canceled court dates and meetings and sent 1,600 workers packing, apparently the first agency ever closed by a budget dispute.

Embarrassed lawmakers made a quick fix. The FTC reopened the next day. The estimated cost of the brouhaha: $700,000.

Carter, a Democratic president forever stymied by his own party in Congress, ordered the whole government to be ready to shut down when the budget year ended on Oct. 1, 1980, in case lawmakers missed their deadline for appropriations bills.

A report by what's now the Government Accountability Office captured federal officials' dismay: "That the federal government would shut its doors was, they said, incomprehensible, inconceivable, unthinkable."

It almost happened. Funding for many agencies did expire but just for a few hours, and nobody was sent home.

Near the end of his term, Civiletti further clarified the law's meaning. In a governmentwide shutdown, the military, air traffic control, prisons and other work that protects human safety or property would continue. So would things such as Social Security benefits, which Congress has financed indefinitely.

1981-1990: Playing chicken

With the threat of shutdown as a weapon, budget fights would never be the same, and a big one was brewing.

Republican Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981 with a promise to cut taxes and shrink government, setting up a showdown with Democrats who ran the House.

High noon came early on Monday, Nov. 23, 1981.

The government had technically been without money all weekend, but Congress approved emergency spending to keep it running. That morning, Reagan wielded his first veto. He was making a stand against "budget-busting policies," the president declared, sending confused federal workers streaming out of offices in Washington and across the nation.

It was the first government shutdown. But it lasted only hours. By that afternoon, Congress approved a three-week spending extension more to Reagan's liking. Workers returned Tuesday morning. The estimated cost: more than $80 million.

The pattern was set. Over his two terms, Reagan and congressional Democrats would regularly argue to the brink of shutdown, and twice more they sent workers home for a half-day.

President George H.W. Bush used the tactic only once, during the budget wrangling that punctured his "no new taxes" pledge.

That partial shutdown over the 1990 Columbus Day weekend mostly served to miff tourists who found national park visitor centers locked and Smithsonian museums closed.

Shutdown threats were becoming ho-hum, just more Washington games. After all, what politician would relish a full body plunge into the "unthinkable"?

1995-96: The real thing

Cue President Bill Clinton and Gingrich.

Two big men with big ideas and big-time egos, the Democratic president and the Republican House speaker charged into a cage match and ended up wrestling the U.S. government to the ground. Twice.

These two shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, were the longest ever. Until now they were assumed to have taught politicians the folly of ever again powering down the world's most powerful government. Maybe not.

Serious issues were at stake in 1995 — the future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid for the poor, the budget deficit. But they got lost in the absurdities:

  • The shutdowns didn't save money; they cost millions.
  • Despite all the buildup, most of government didn't close, because of complexities of the federal budget and exemptions for essential workers.
  • Still, the first shutdown resulted in 800,000 workers eventually getting paid for staying home.
  • Despite public disgust, Clinton and the Republicans failed to settle all their disputes and soon idled 280,000 employees for another three weeks, through Christmas and into the New Year.
  • The effects rippled through the economy, harming federal contractors and businesses that serve visitors to national parks and industries that must work with federal inspectors.
  • The tone of the whole exercise was set when a huffy Gingrich suggested he had steered the government to a standstill because Clinton relegated him to the back door of Air Force One on an overseas trip. The public tantrum delighted Democrats and cartoonists alike.

The president was judged to have "won" the tussle. Republicans took a drubbing in the polls and ended up accepting most of Clinton's conditions in a compromise that seemed more like crying uncle.

But faith in government may have been the biggest loser.

A footnote: On the January day that missing workers were scheduled to finally return to their posts, the Northeast was just starting to dig out from an extreme blizzard.

After weeks of insisting it was vital to get government back to work quickly, Clinton decided to keep Washington closed another four days.

 


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