Government Shutdowns: A History

by Charles C. W. Cooke
The refusal of Democrats to negotiate is what makes this one stand out.

America, we are told, is in the grim midst of an unrivaled constitutional crisis that is being perpetrated in anger by “racist,” “bomb-throwing” “anarchists” whose “endgame” and ultimate fantasy is the shutting down of government — not, of course, because the co-equal branches of the American polity cannot come to a budget agreement, but because a vocal “extreme” minority, that has magically managed to transmute itself into a majority of the House and 46 percent of the Senate, does not believe in having a government at all.

E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post’s resident worrywart, yesterday assured his concerned readers that Washington has shut down because “right-wing extremists” who do not accept the president’s “legitimacy” have taken an axe to America’s “normal, well-functioning, constitutional system,” and swung it, too, against “anyone who accepts majority rule and constitutional constraints.” Among his ideological bedfellows, this is a popular complaint.

Still, popular or not, the abject folly of making “majority rule” arguments in a system of equally ranked branches should be self-evident. This truly is painfully simple: Republicans are the majority in the House, and the House’s assent is necessary to a legal budget. Indeed, if any of the players in the budgetary game is superior, it is the House. Not only is it wholly wrong to pretend that the House is expected to acquiesce to the fiscal and legislative demands of the president simply because he won the last election, but it is dangerous — just one more step on the road to the imperial polity that the American system of separated powers was contrived to prevent.

If one were being charitable, one might inquire as to whether Dionne and his acolytes are confused about where in the world they are. Certainly, in Britain’s parliament the contents of the winning party’s manifesto are protected from the dissent of the upper chamber. But in America’s system of separated powers, no such rule or convention obtains. Mandates are afforded to each branch, and each may do as it wishes — preferably without being maligned as “arsonists” or accused of ushering in an unprecedented breakdown in order.

As one might expect, it is not just the structural questions that Dionne and his cohorts get so spectacularly askew, but also the congressional history — and, thus, the crucial context of what happened yesterday. I acknowledge that pretending the emergence of a spending gap is indicative of the end times is an enormously profitable tactic for politicians to deploy. But there is no reason for an esteemed journalist to so supinely parrot the lie. Reviewing Dylan Matthews’s comprehensive list of the other 17 federal shutdowns in the last 40 years, one realizes rather quickly that it is not the appearance of a government shutdown that is remarkable, but the long absence of one. That shadowy figure on the horizon? Not so much death as the old friend that we had forgotten we knew.

The opportunity for convenient pretense has apparently proven too tempting for some. Salon’s Joan Walsh, one of the least lettered among our political columnists, made the queasily predictable argument on Tuesday that the shutdown was really to do with race. “That this crisis hit under our first black president, over ‘Obamacare,’ Walsh screeched, “isn’t an accident.” Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush, all of whom presided over fractious shutdowns, might find this insinuation rather perplexing. In the last 40 years, only President George W. Bush was spared such a conflict.

The frequency with which America has previously reached this point betrays another inconvenient truth: the willingness to shut down the federal Leviathan is by no means limited to the advocates of small government. As my colleague Andrew Stiles notes today, during the supposedly bipartisan wonder years of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill — which are typically rolled out by revisionists to demonstrate what can happen if we all just “work together” — the government shut down no fewer than eight times, mostly at O’Neill’s insistence. Likewise, during Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, which are fondly remembered as a time of solid economic growth and bipartisan achievement, the government was sent home twice — on both occasions after Clinton rejected the budget.

Overall, the statistics might surprise: Of the 17 shutdowns in America’s history, Democrats controlled the House during 15 and had charge of both chambers during eight. Five shutdowns happened under unified government! This makes sense. Government shutdowns are caused by legitimate and welcome disagreement between equal branches. They are certainly more likely to happen in divided government, but it is not a prerequisite.

What stands out here is not the shutdown itself, but the president and Harry Reid’s public refusal even to engage with Republicans. As Matthews documents, most budget gaps are resolved by the participants’ compromising. The quaint notion that there is no obligation to come to a negotiated agreement because one branch of government “won” would be almost certainly regarded as somewhat odd not only by the architects of America’s constitutional order but by the major players in the previous few decades. Eleven shutdowns ended with a deal, five were resolved with an agreement temporarily to fund the government while debate continued, and one ended with Congress overriding a presidential veto. Stand firm if you want, Mr. President, but the history is against you here.

Obama and his apologists appear to be laboring under the misapprehension that the House’s insistence on extracting concessions is inappropriate because its demands are somehow “unrelated” to the budget process. Given that nothing in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers hints at this, the claim is peculiar on its face. Nevertheless, let’s pretend for the sake of argument that it’s true. The question then must be, “Does Obamacare really have ‘nothing to do with the budget’(as President Obama managed to claim with a straight face in a speech last week)?

Hardly. Obamacare is an allegedly “deficit-reducing” measure that was passed via the budget-reconciliation process, was rewritten by the Supreme Court as a tax, and will increase the federal budget by up to 10 percent. The initial House plan here, remember, was not to repeal, but to defund the law — a clear-cut budgetary project if anything is. If defunding things as part of fiscal negotiations is beyond the pale, then the president might explain why the ninth shutdown, for example, ended with the Democratic House’s managing to defund a defense program that included both medium-range and intercontinental missiles, and why it was appropriate for Congress to shut down the government over the funding of abortion as it did five times. Funnily enough, tempting as it must have been, during none of these disputes did the participants run around shouting “It’s the Law!”

The United States is a constitutional republic, the public institutions in which are decidedly more Charles Montesquieu than Walter Bagehot. All systems are a trade-off, and America’s settlement privileges discord, delay, and separation over efficiency and a strong executive. This is to say that, by design, harsh conflict in the United States yields a standoff rather than a shootout. One can credibly debate the merits of such an arrangement, and certainly one can try to navigate the system as boldly as is politically possible. But crying that the end of the world is nigh strikes me as being hysterical, partisan, and even mendacious — especially when we are discussing a system whose creation story and most recent fracases are available for all to see

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

Did you like this?