Politics & Policy

When Tip Did It

Tip O’Neill presided over two-thirds of the government shutdowns since 1976.

The government shut down on October 1 for the 18th time since 1976, after the House and Senate could not agree on a resolution to fund it. Democrats have accused Republicans of negotiating with “a bomb strapped to their chest” and putting “a gun to everybody’s head,” as if it were an anomalous development in the modern political era for Congress to seek to extract policy concessions from the White House by withholding spending authorization. The resulting shutdown, Democrats now suggest, is as unprecedented as it is deplorable. Or, in the words of one esteemed liberal, it is “the end result of a 50-year GOP push to make govt = welfare and welfare = black people.”

Historically speaking, it is rather remarkable that Washington hasn’t experienced a government shutdown in nearly two decades. The shutdowns of the mid 1990s have been the subject of much debate. Beyond that, however, the chattering class appears to suffer from a short memory, as it often does.

At this point in Ronald Reagan’s second term, for example, the government had already shut down six times, for a total of twelve days, as a result of failed budget negotiations between the White House, a Republican Senate, and House Democrats under the leadership of Speaker Tip O’Neill (D., Mass.) — precisely the opposite of the political dynamic that exists today. Former O’Neill staffer and MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews has written an entire book extolling that era as a time “when politics worked.” (You can probably guess how he feels about the current situation.)

O’Neill presided over a total of seven government shutdowns under Reagan, and five during the Jimmy Carter administration, meaning that he played a role in precisely two-thirds of all the government shutdowns since the modern budgeting process has been in place. Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) pointed this out to Matthews on Meet the Press on Sunday, noting that O’Neill was never called a terrorist for shutting the government down over budget negotiations. Matthews didn’t care for the reminder and even questioned the source of Labrador’s claim; it was the Washington Post.

Interestingly, nearly all of the shutdowns that took place during the Carter administration, when Democrats also controlled the Senate under Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.), were the result of disagreements over abortion policy, and lasted more than ten days on average. In several instances between 1977 and 1979, the Democratic House resisted the Democratic Senate’s efforts to expand the number of cases for which federal funds, via Medicaid, could be used to pay for abortion. The government partially shut down three times for a total of 28 days between September and December 1977 as lawmakers negotiated a compromise on the issue, although it would be revisited several times during subsequent shutdowns.

The shutdowns of the Reagan-O’Neill era, on the other hand, were more budget-focused, and the disputes they involved were over a wider range of policies. They also took less time to resolve. The first such shutdown occurred in November 1981, less than a year into Reagan’s first term. Reagan had demanded at least $4 billion in domestic-spending cuts, and when Congress did not oblige, he vetoed a spending package, triggering a government shutdown. Technically, the shutdown lasted only a few hours, until Congress approved a three-week spending resolution to give lawmakers time to negotiate a long-term deal.

The government briefly shut down twice the following year, the first time because the House simply failed to pass an agreed-on spending bill before funding expired. According to the New York Times, party leaders missed the deadline in order to attend “major social events,” which included a barbeque at the White House and a high-dollar Democratic fundraiser. Reagan ultimately accepted a funding agreement even though it called for higher levels of spending than he would have liked.

Months later, the government shut down for several days in part over the House’s refusal to fund an intercontinental-missile program that Reagan supported. The House also wanted more than $5 billion in funding for public-works projects, which Reagan had threatened to veto. In the end, the public-works funding was scrapped, but so was funding for the missile program.

Another shutdown occurred in November 1983 after House Democrats requested an additional $1 billion in funding for education and reduced spending on defense and foreign aid. Less than a year later, the government shut down after the House, as well as the Senate, sought to tie a number of extraneous measures, opposed by Reagan, to a resolution funding the government. That standoff resulted in a three-day continuing resolution to buy time for further negotiation, but the government shut down again when lawmakers failed to reach an agreement.

The final shutdown of O’Neill’s political career was in October 1986. House Democrats had picked fights with Reagan on a number of issues, including labor, energy, and welfare policy. The differences between the two sides weren’t resolved in time to prevent a shutdown, which lasted about a day, and ended when Democrats relinquished many of their demands.

Of course, the current scenario is unique given the controversy surrounding Obamacare — legislation of historical scope that was passed in partisan fashion and remains unpopular, notwithstanding the reelection of its namesake. Perhaps if the situation were reversed, House Democrats would never be so irresponsible as to allow the government to shut down. History suggests otherwise.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


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