Perhaps the Republicans, fresh from their victory at the midterm elections, are looking to settle old scores such as how President Bill Clinton bested House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1995-1996 government shutdowns. Now, some fiscal conservatives want to fight that battle again today.
One of those leading the charge is Gingrich, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, who has called on Republicans to fight against efforts to raise the debt ceiling, which would effectively cripple the federal government. Republicans are eager to shut down the government to repeal the Health Care Reform Bill. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), likely to become the House Majority Leader, has been quoted as saying that Obama would bear part of the blame for any government shutdown. Political consultant Dick Morris is predicting that not only will be a shutdown but that the Republicans will “win it this time.” Regardless, it’s a huge political risk for the Republicans.
“I was there November 14, 1995 when Newt Gingrich pulled the plug on the federal government the first time,” writes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Christian Science Monitor. “It proved to be the stupidest political move in recent history. Not only did it help Bill Clinton win reelection but it was a boon to almost all other Democrats in 1996.”
Of course, Reich is right. The government shutdown was one of Clinton’s greatest political triumphs and helped him win reelection. Republicans are eager to avoid having history repeat itself. John Boehner, the expected Speaker of the House, even bluntly stated in September that the Republicans were not interested in shutting down the government. But the problem is that it may not be entirely up to the Republican leadership. Buoyed by their recent success in the midterm elections, supporters of the Tea Party such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), are pushing the party to the right. She already is bucking the party establishment by seeking a leadership role.
A government showdown may come sooner than many people think. The debt ceiling — the maximum amount the government can borrow — is expected to be hit early next year. Uncle Sam can’t function if it can’t honor its commitments such as bonds. Financial markets would careen into the abyss if this happens. Then there are budget disputes, which are as much a part of Washington, D.C., as the cherry blossoms. Without a formal budget, Congress needs to pass continuing resolutions to keep the government running. These are usually enacted after some political theater, but the consequences are serious when they fail to pass.
The Clinton era shutdowns (November 14 through November 19, 1995 and from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996) cost the federal government $800 million in salaries for furloughed employees. They also created gargantuan headaches for taxpayers. Here is a list of some them:
- New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical center;
- Toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home;
- Work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended;
- Closing 368 National Park Service sites resulted in a loss of 7 million visitors and a loss of tourism revenues to local communities:
- Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas went unprocessed each day as did 200,000 U.S. applications for passports. U.S. tourism industries and airlines lost millions of dollars
If the government was forced down today, there would be even bigger complications. For instance, what would happen to the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program? How about funding for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? The complications would be mind-boggling.
The Republicans who want to shut down the government better be careful what they wish for because they may get it.