Winning the Government-Shutdown Fight
Why Republicans can’t back down


With the GOP-led House and the Democratic Senate and White House far apart on a measure to pay the federal government’s bills past March 4, Washington is rumbling toward a repeat of the 1995 government-shutdown fight (actually two shutdown fights, one in mid-November of that year and the other in mid-December).

This makes some Republicans nervous. They think Bill Clinton “won” the blame game that year, and they’re afraid they will get the short end of the stick if there is a 1995-type impasse this year.

A timid approach, though, is a recipe for failure. It means that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can sit on their hands, make zero concessions, and wait for the GOP to surrender any time a deadline approaches.

In other words, budget hawks in the House have no choice. They have to fight.

But they can take comfort in the fact that this is not a suicide mission. The conventional wisdom about what happened in November of 1995 is very misleading.

Republicans certainly did not suffer at the polls. They lost only nine House seats, a relatively trivial number after a net gain of 54 in 1994. They actually added to their majority in the Senate, picking up two seats in the 1996 cycle.

More important, they succeeded in dramatically reducing the growth of federal spending. They did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but government spending grew by just 2.9 percent during the first four years of GOP control, helping to turn a $164 billion deficit in 1995 into a $126 billion surplus in 1999. And they enacted a big tax cut in 1997.

If that’s what happens when Republicans are defeated, I hope the GOP loses again this year.

So what actually happened in 1995, and why do Republicans have such unpleasant memories?

The debate that year hinged on some issues that favored the GOP, such as whether the budget should be balanced within seven years, and whether to use scoring from the Congressional Budget Office instead of the executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget. But there were also some issues that favored the Clinton administration, such as whether the elderly should pay higher Medicare premiums.

And it’s worth pointing out that 1995 was a perfect storm of fiscal-policy conflicts, featuring fights over appropriations (annual spending), reconciliation (taxes and entitlements), and the debt limit. This year’s fight — at least at this early stage — is only about appropriations for the rest of 2011.

Also key is that 1995 was a fight between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Republicans sent legislation to the White House; Bill Clinton used his veto pen. Republicans said Bill Clinton was shutting down the government by vetoing legislation; Bill Clinton said Republicans were shutting down the government by sending him unacceptable proposals.

They eventually struck a deal, of course, with Republicans winning on their issues (balanced budget in seven years with CBO scoring) and Bill Clinton winning on his issues (such as Medicare premiums). But since the polling data favored the White House, Bill Clinton was declared the victor.