That Was Then, This Is Now (Part 2)

Here are more reasons why the 1995 shutdown was different from today’s.

Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot speaks at the University of South Florida 31 October 1992 in Tampa, FL. Perot said members of Congress should have their ears enlarged so they can hear the needs of the people. US elections will be held 03 November 1992.  
National Journal
Major Garrett
Oct. 9, 2013, 5:25 p.m.

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.

Me­dia uni­verse: In 1995 there was no Fox News Chan­nel or MS­N­BC.

#WTF.

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.

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