Former White House staffer Ben Kirby on memories of shutdowns past

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What goes around comes around.

I was there for the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. The reasons for the shutdown then were a bit different, but many of the results were the same. From November 14 through 19 of 1995, I and tens of thousands of other DC-based federal employees went home. We did it again on December 16, 1995 through January 6, 1996, a grand total of 28 days. Though I was nothing more than a staff assistant and scheduler, I was self-important enough to complain to my bosses that I hadn’t been considered “essential staff,” and ordered to stay on.

Now we are shut down again. This time, I’m self-employed — but Duncan, an employee of the General Services Administration in Tampa — is not at work. It is certainly nice to have her home, but it does feel strange, for both of us.

The memories of the shutdown of the mid-90s lingers for me. And so does the fallout.

Americans quickly recognized it as the sad work of a belligerent Speaker of the House, Congressman Newt Gingrich, and he ultimately paid a heavy political price for his antics.

But there were real-world impacts as well. A 2011 report from the independent Congressional Research Service — recently updated — pointed out that because of those shutdowns on the 1990s:  

  • Health and welfare services for military veterans were curtailed
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped disease surveillance
  • New clinical research patients were not accepted at the National Institutes of Health
  • Toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites was halted.

And that’s just to start. The report goes on: 

The closure of 368 Nation Park sites resulted in the loss of some 7 million visitors. Recruitment and testing of federal law enforcement officials was reportedly cancelled, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents. 200,000 applications for passports and 20,000 to 30,000 applications for visas by foreigners went unprocessed; U.S. tourism and airline industries incurred millions of dollars in losses. More than 20% of federal contracts, representing $3.7 billion in spending, were affected adversely. 

Not surprisingly, the same thing is happening that happened in the waning weeks and days of 1995, and the first days of 1996: Republicans are stepping on their message, and distractions are starting to seep into the conversation. Today, the GOP is effectively divided between the hard-line Tea Party faction unwilling to do anything but de-fund Health Reform, and leadership — such as it is — not happy with the idea of compromising with a president they loathe, but also finding it necessary to govern.

Democrats, including President Obama, come out the other side simply wanting to govern. And that is all that Americans really want, too: for the politicians they elect to actually do some governing. In 1996, Americans rewarded Democrats — albeit narrowly — with a couple of pick-ups in the Republican-controlled House, and by making Bill Clinton the first Democrat to win re-election to the White House since Franklin Roosevelt.  

What will 2014 look like for Republicans this time?