The Corner

History Did Not Start in 2009

As was the case in 2011 — and earlier this year — we are seeing from the establishment press a concerted attempt to convince the public that government shutting down in this manner is unprecedented, and, too, to convince them that legislators using a raise in the debt-ceiling as political leverage is beyond the constitutional pale. Tied to this suggestion is the implication that nobody would have dared to try such a thing until the crazy Tea Party came along in 2010. (And, in the case that the audience knows full well that shutdowns did happen in the past, the follow-up tactic is to insist that those were somehow “different.”)

There is a tiny problem with all this. It’s nonsense.

As Sean Davis notes this morning over at The Federalist, politicians have long threatened to use the debt-ceiling as leverage, and they have on a few occasions gone so far as actually to do so. Indeed, it might amuse many of the progressives who like to argue that Republicans should go back to the old, “reasonable” approach that they took during the Eisenhower days, that a Republican Congress refused to acquesice to Eisenhower’s demands for an entire year:

Even though both chambers of Congress were controlled by Eisenhower’s Republican allies, raising the debt ceiling was no easy lift, even for one of the most highly respected combat generals in American history. Whereas Barack Obama organized communities before he sought political office, Eisenhower commanded entire armies and used them to bring Hitler to his knees.

Although he first mentioned the need to raise the debt ceiling in February of 1953, Eisenhower did not formally submit his request to Congress until three days before the body’s scheduled adjournment that August. It turns out that waiting until the last second in the hope of increasing negotiating leverage is a bipartisan tradition that goes back decades.

The 83rd Congress, however, would not be bullied. Led by Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.), the Senate Finance Committee rejected Eisenhower’s request by a vote of 11-4. It would take another year before Eisenhower would get his debt limit increase approved by Congress, and even then Congress only gave him an additional $6 billion, rather than the $15 billion he initially requested.

In the 1970s, the Democratic Congress did it to President Carter:

In September of 1977, the debt ceiling was set at $700 billion, but due to the way the law authorizing that particular limit was written, that number would fall to $400 billion on October 1 if Congress did not extend the current limit. Unsurprisingly, Congress failed to extend it. Also unsurprisingly, several senators took Carter’s request hostage and attempted to use it as a bargaining chip for negotiations over natural gas deregulation.

“With the Senate entangled in a filibuster over natural gas prices, Congress let the Friday midnight deadline slip by without passing final legislation to raise the debt ceiling,” the Associated Press reported at the time. But it wasn’t Republicans who were responsible for the filibuster. Senate Democrats led the charge and threatened to continue filibustering for weeks if necessary.

And, in the 1990s, Democrats “extorted” the first President Bush, as was their prerogative:

Congressional Democrats eventually got their way via the November 5 enactment of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, which raised income tax rates and instituted statutory PAYGO measures that would lead to sequestration if deficit targets were not met. Two years later, Bush would be tossed from office, due in large part to his now-broken “no new taxes” campaign pledge. Congress gave him the debt limit increase he wanted, but the price he paid was his presidency.

Other than that it rather deliciously destroys the scaremongering and myopia of the History Started in 2009 crowd, what is most interesting to me here is how devastating Davis’s piece is to the delirious claims of those who contend that the system is being broken by “partisanship” and “party politics” — or even, as the disciples of Juan Linz insist, by a new phenomenon of unified party platforms. In the cases of Carter and Eisenhower, it was the president’s own party that thwarted his request, a pesky little fact that reveals the “but the president won!” argument to be as silly as you might have suspected. Sure, Eisenhower had won election. But so had a majority of Republicans in both the House and the Senate. And they were all of the same party. It’s almost as if the branches of government are equal and they carry equally valid, if conflicting, mandates.

Look back into history, and you’ll find similar instances with shutdowns, too. Sure, spending gaps can happen when the president and the Congress are of different parties. But they don’t have to. Five shutdowns happened when Democrats simultaneously controlled the White House, the House, and the Senate. This is because shutdowns occur when the co-branches of government disagree as to what to do. That is how it works in America. Long may it last.

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