This is the second and final installment on the key differences between today’s shutdown saga and 1995.
Prospective vs. retrospective: The 1995 shutdown was an unprecedented clash of forces in modern American politics. Yes, there had been shutdowns before (nine since 1981), but the 1995 showdown was the first organized effort by a congressional Republican majority to uproot the Great Society. The two biggest targets were Medicare and welfare. Republicans lost their bid to reduce the rate of Medicare spending. After the shutdown and in the teeth of a reelection campaign, President Clinton signed welfare reform, thereby rewriting “six decades of social policy.”
To the degree that Obamacare is still part of the GOP’s ad hoc and ever-shifting shutdown strategy, it is prospective—seeking to siphon funds needed to implement the law, repeal it altogether, or equalize exemptions or waivers granted by the Obama administration to employers, unions, and other pleaders. It is a fight against the semi-known and largely feared. And it lacks a full-blown GOP alternative.
The appropriations process: This may sound like a silly-minded obsession with the mechanics of spending federal dollars, but today’s budget standoff is a direct and predictable outgrowth of the collapse of the appropriations process. I'm not suggesting that process hummed in 1995, but it had a semblance of coherence—creating, at least for a few years, a steady flow of spending bills passed by the House and Senate, merged in conference committee, and signed by presidents.
Trivia question: When was the last time a president signed an individual spending bill? Answer: Dec. 19, 2009, when President Obama signed the defense appropriations bill. That means Congress did not send a spending bill to Obama under the normal legislative process in 2010, 2011, 2012 or, obviously, this year. Spending bills force Congress to decide, in public, what to spend and why. When that process breaks down, there is less legislative attachment to and knowledge of the vast array of federal services.
When Congress doesn’t pass spending bills, it has to resort to continuing resolutions or catch-all spending bills that combine a slew of spending bills into legislative monstrosities known as an omnibus or minibus. The names are cute, or semi-cute, but they gnaw away at the essential legislative foundation of day-to-day federal spending. That makes shutdowns or eleventh-hour interventions to avoid them exactly what they have become—commonplace. I would argue they also make sequestration palatable—even to Democrats. What was unthinkable two years ago—across-the-board or meat-cleaver discretionary spending cuts—is now a political reality. Congress has simply given up on one of its basic constitutional functions: passing bills that fund government operations.
Perot’s echo: One of the most flaccid pieces of political analysis is that Ross Perot cost President George H.W. Bush reelection in 1992. That is provably false, though it lingers like the stench of a weekend-long Indian-summer frat party. What is frequently missed is how much Perot supporters had to do with the GOP rebound in 1994.
The Perot constituency was up for grabs in 1993 and 1994, and House Republicans, led by then-Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, courted them aggressively and tailored the contents and messaging around the Contract With America to woo these deficit-minded reformists in 1994. It worked. That alliance helped Republicans hold Congress until 2006, when aggravated Perot-type voters (sickened by higher federal spending and earmark corruption) sat out that cycle and 2008. The GOP-aligned Perot voters reemerged, voila, as tea-party activists in 2009 and 2010. They deployed new technology, but their grassroots fervor and effectiveness mirrored that of Perot voters who had defied the skeptics and put H. Ross on the ballot in all 50 states in 1992.
The difference now is Perot voters of the earlier era did not take month-by-month measure of ideological purity the way tea-party activists do now (aided and abetted by conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, and Heritage Action for America). Ross Perot isn’t back, and he’s not the face of the tea-party movement, but small-government populism and dissatisfaction with the GOP elite courses through the movement’s veins.
That’s right. It was the three broadcast networks, PBS, and CNN. And there were three vibrant, profitable, and thought-leading weekly magazines: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report (where I worked from 1998 to 2000). National newspapers were potent and powerful, and devoted pages of coverage to the shutdown’s twists and turns. Local newspapers also fed off the story and quizzed congressmen and senators about the implications of the shutdown, the politics of spending cuts, and this epic collision of personalities—Clinton’s and Gingrich’s. Editorial pages carried real weight, and lawmakers trembled if the hometown paper wagged a finger of disapproval. Time is still here, but its circulation has dropped from 4.2 million in 1997 to 3.3 million in 2011. Newsweek died, and my beloved U.S. News remains, barely, as a scrappy, readable website and tout sheet of colleges and hospitals. Newspapers across the country are crinkled husks: Total daily and Sunday circulation as a percentage of U.S. households has fallen from 60 percent in 1995 to 38 percent in 2010. Hometown editorial pages are quaint whispers in the roaring Internet wind.
Speaking of the Internet, in 1995 it was an oddity. Globally, Internet traffic totaled 0.18 petabytes in 1995 (a petabyte is 1,000 to the fifth power).
In 2011, global Internet traffic rose to 27,483 petabytes. The point is, 1995 was a paper-and-network-TV world. Hell, it was a wristwatch-and-fax-machine world. The explosion of talk radio, blogs, and social media on the Left and Right have created solid, secondary markets of ideological reinforcement and purity monitoring. Today’s political culture is soaked in opinion, ideological rigidity, and viral groupthink incomprehensible to the political players of 1995.
This is a different world. Very little about what happened and why in 1995 applies today. That’s why there is more anxiety. And there should be.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
This article appears in the October 10, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as That Was Then, This Is Now, Volume II.