Conventional wisdom says congressional Republicans learned their lesson from initiating disasterous government shutdowns the last time they took control of Congress.
Those budget showdowns, after all, only served to strengthen the bond between voters and the last Democratic president — helping set the stage for Bill Clinton’s landslide re-election.
Not necessarily true, according to one senior analyst at a prestigious Washington think tank.
Conservatives may well force the closure of much of the government, says Sarah Binder, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. This time, however, they will just do it in a way that avoids closing the government’s more popular aspects, such as the national park system.
“The conventional wisdom is that the GOP learned their lesson in 1995. Don’t shut down the government! I’m not so sure that that’s the lesson learned (or that the new GOP freshmen necessarily see it that way.),” Binder says in a recent web chat. “I’m still concerned that a government shutdown could be in the works, just one that is more strategically crafted. In other words, this time, national parks won’t be shut down. A government shut down, particularly in DC, would be another hurdle for a struggling economy.”
Just as the case today involves emboldened Republicans seeking dramatic rollbacks of President Obama’s agenda, the architects of the 1994 Republican Revolution, led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pushed big budget cuts against Clinton.
Clinton stood firm, and the lack of a budget agreement forced most of the federal government to close in two stretches in late 1995 and early 1996. Clinton defended his actions, and saw his approval ratings rebound dramatically from their lows after the 1994 midterms. One of the key things that so turned public opinion turned against the GOP, and caused Republicans to blink in their standoff with Clinton were the droves of Americans who were turned away from major national parks and momuments which were closed as part of the overall shutdown.
Congress this year must approve at least a temporary continuing resolution by the end of the year — or face another shutdown.
Whether the dynamics of a fresh shutdown would favor Obama or Republicans is an open question.
“The president seems intent on positioning himself at a distance from congressional Democrats. That might work politically for the White House in the short term, but the GOP will want to push him much further than federal employee pay cuts,” Binder says, referring to the president’s recent decision to freeze the pay of government workers for two years. “These strike me as tepid efforts to reach out, when Democrats might be better served by sticking to their populist stand on saving only middle class tax cuts.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.