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Updated Oct 2, 2013 - 7:30 pm

Should founders share blame for budget gridlock?

WASHINGTON — OK, gridlocked politicians we’re used to. But why padlock the
Statue of Liberty?

You don’t see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants
home just because their political parties can’t get along. Belgian civil
servants, for example, carried on nicely for a year and a half while their
politicians bickered over forming a new government.

The partial shutdown Tuesday is a quirk of American history. So if you’re bored
with blaming House Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some
responsibility on the Founding Fathers.

Or blame President Jimmy Carter for his rectitude. Or ex-House Speaker Newt
Gingrich for his hissy fit over how he exited Air Force One.

A history of government shutdowns, American-style:


1789: Balance of powers.

The framers of the Constitution gave Congress control over spending as a way to
limit the power of the presidency. The government can only spend money “in
consequence of appropriations made by law,” or in other words, after Congress
says so and with the president’s signature.


1800s: Power struggles.

Turns out it’s not easy to shoo federal bureaucrats away from the piggy bank.

When they wanted to spend more than Congress gave, the War Department and other
agencies ordered stuff on credit. Then they would go to Congress seeking an
appropriation to pay the bills. Lawmakers felt obliged to cover the government’s
debts, but they weren’t happy about it. The executive branch was undermining
Congress’s power of the purse.

Congress responded with a series of laws that eventually got one of those
dreadful Washington monikers: The Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who mistakenly spend money Congress hasn’t OK’d
face disciplinary action, ranging from firing to hours stuck in mind-numbing
budget training. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

But willful overspending is a crime that carries the threat of fines and two
years in prison.


1900s: A delicate balance.

The Anti-Deficiency Act seems clear, but as usual, Congress sent mixed
messages. Lawmakers routinely failed to pass most of each year’s dozen or so
appropriations bills on time. Sometimes agencies went a full year without a
budget. Usually lawmakers would smooth that over with a short-term money
approval, called a “continuing resolution” in Washington-speak.

Sometimes Congress couldn’t even agree on those: Stopgap resolutions got
tangled up for days or a couple of weeks in political fights over matters such
as abortion, foreign aid or congressional pay raises; sort of like the current
fight over health care.

But government agencies didn’t shut down and Cabinet secretaries weren’t led
away in handcuffs.

Agency chiefs might delay workers’ pay and put items such as travel and new
contracts on hold, but they assumed Congress didn’t want them to turn off the
lights and go home. Eventually lawmakers would cough up a spending bill to
retroactively paper over the funding gap.


1980: An inconvenient truth.

This look-the-other-way system worked for decades, until the Carter

A stickler for the rules, Carter asked his attorney general to look into the
Anti-Deficiency Act. In April 1980, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued a
startling opinion: “The legal authority for continued operations either exists
or it does not,” he wrote.

When it does not, government must send employees home. They can’t work for free
or with the expectation that they will be paid someday.

What’s more, Civiletti declared, any agency chief who broke that law would be

Five days later, funding for the Federal Trade Commission expired amid a
congressional disagreement over limiting the agency’s powers. The FTC halted
operations, canceled court dates and meetings and sent 1,600 workers packing,
apparently the first agency ever closed by a budget dispute.

Embarrassed lawmakers made a quick fix. The FTC reopened the next day. The
estimated cost of the brouhaha: $700,000.

Carter, a Democratic president forever stymied by his own party in Congress,
ordered the whole government to be ready to shut down when the budget year ended
on Oct. 1, 1980, in case lawmakers missed their deadline for appropriations

A report by what’s now the Government Accountability Office captured federal
officials’ dismay: “That the federal government would shut its doors was, they
said, incomprehensible, inconceivable, unthinkable.”

It almost happened. Funding for many agencies did expire, but just for a few
hours, and nobody was sent home.

Near the end of his term, Civiletti further clarified the law’s meaning. In a
government-wide shutdown, the military, air traffic control, prisons and other
work that protects human safety or property would continue, so would things such
as Social Security benefits, which Congress has financed indefinitely.


1981-1990: Playing chicken.

With the threat of shutdown as a weapon, budget fights would never be the same,
and a big one was brewing.

Republican Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981 with a
promise to cut taxes and shrink government, setting up a showdown with Democrats
who ran the House.

High noon came early on Monday, Nov. 23, 1981.

The government had technically been without money all weekend, but Congress
approved emergency spending to keep it running. That morning, Reagan wielded his
first veto. He was making a stand against “budget-busting policies,” the
president declared, sending confused federal workers streaming out of offices in
Washington and across the nation.

It was the first government shutdown, but it lasted only hours. By that
afternoon, Congress approved a three-week spending extension more to Reagan’s
liking. Workers returned Tuesday morning. The estimated cost: More than $80

The pattern was set. Over his two terms, Reagan and congressional Democrats
would regularly argue to the brink of shutdown, and twice more they sent workers
home for a half-day.

President George H.W. Bush used the tactic only once, during the budget
wrangling that punctured his “no new taxes” pledge.

That partial shutdown over the 1990 Columbus Day weekend mostly served to miff
tourists who found national park visitor centers locked and Smithsonian museums

Shutdown threats were becoming ho-hum, just more Washington games. After all,
what politician would relish a full body plunge into the “unthinkable”?


1995-96: The real thing.

Cue President Bill Clinton and Gingrich.

Two big men with big ideas and big-time egos, the Democratic president and the
Republican House speaker charged into a cage match and ended up wrestling the
U.S. government to the ground. Twice.

These two shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, were the longest ever. Until now,
they were assumed to have taught politicians the folly of ever again powering
down the world’s most powerful government. Maybe not.

Serious issues were at stake in 1995: The future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid
for the poor, the budget deficit. But they got lost in the absurdities:

The shutdowns didn’t save money; they cost millions.

Despite all the buildup, most of government didn’t close, because of
complexities of the federal budget and exemptions for essential workers.

Still, the first shutdown resulted in 800,000 workers eventually getting paid
for staying home.

Despite public disgust, Clinton and the Republicans failed to settle all their
disputes and soon idled 280,000 employees for another three weeks, through
Christmas and into the New Year.

The effects rippled through the economy, harming federal contractors and
businesses that serve visitors to national parks and industries that must work
with federal inspectors.

The tone of the whole exercise was set when a huffy Gingrich suggested he had
steered the government to a standstill because Clinton relegated him to the back
door of Air Force One on an overseas trip. The public tantrum delighted
Democrats and cartoonists alike.

The president was judged to have “won” the tussle. Republicans took a
drubbing in the polls and ended up accepting most of Clinton’s conditions in a
compromise that seemed more like crying uncle.

But faith in government may have been the biggest loser.

A footnote: On the January day that missing workers were scheduled to finally
return to their posts, the Northeast was just starting to dig out from an
extreme blizzard.

After weeks of insisting it was vital to get government back to work quickly,
Clinton decided to keep Washington closed another four days.


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