U.S. government shutdown lessons from the budget battle of 1995

photo A sign closing the entrance is posted outside the Pennsylvania Avenue of the Treasury Department in Washington.


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photo John Duncan

NASHVILLE - Three Tennessee Republican veterans of mid-1990s congressional confrontations with a Democratic president have differing ideas today about what they meant and what players in Washington's current showdown should learn from them.

U.S. Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan of Knoxville is the only area veteran of the 1995 and 1996 spending battles who still is serving in Congress. For him, there wasn't such a big impact when a Republican-controlled House and Senate squared off with then-President Bill Clinton.

"Well, last time, even though the government was supposedly shut down for almost a month, most people in my district really didn't seem to notice that much," Duncan said.

"It was very similar to now," Duncan said, looking at today's House Republican budget standoff with President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The shutdown began Tuesday after House Republicans, pushed by tea party members, sought first to defund Obama's signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, and then delay portions of it in a temporary spending bill that couldn't get a hearing in the Senate. With no way to pay the bills, much of government closed.

Recent polls show the public blaming Republicans more than Democrats so far, but a Gallup poll released Friday showed Obama's job approval rating dipping to 41 percent. Congress was at 13 percent in Fox News' latest poll, taken Monday and Tuesday as the shutdown began.

Duncan said the partial shutdowns in the 1990s and today are really more of a "slowdown." He disregards what he called "hype" then and now about an "apocalypse" in the making.

That didn't happen then -- Social Security payments still went out, mail was delivered and key functions like air traffic control remained in place, Duncan said. And it's not happening now, he said.

He expects that any eventual budget agreement will make up the pay for furloughed workers, just as it did in the 1990s.

photo Zach Wamp is the former U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 3rd congressional district, serving from 1995 to 2011.


The two shutdowns that occurred in late 1995 and early 1996 lasted a total of 27 days and centered on balancing the budget.

Former congressmen Zach Wamp, of Chattanooga, and Van Hilleary, formerly of Rhea County and now living in Murfreesboro, differ on today's battle as well as the 1990s fights.

There are a "whole lot of major differences" between then and now, said Wamp, beginning with political math.

"The biggest difference is we [Republicans] had the House and the Senate" in 1995 and 1996, Wamp said. Congress presented a united front against Clinton and it was "a very different process."

Wamp and Hilleary both were swept into office on the Republican wave of 1994.

In 1995, Hilleary said, House Republicans "gave a lot of credence" to their new speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who led them into the confrontation with Clinton.

"I felt that if we did it we needed to hang with it. But we did kind of get the worst of both worlds," Hilleary said.

Public opinion turned against Republicans. Hilleary recalled a House Republican meeting where moderates agreed with then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole that they were in a battle they couldn't win.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Hilleary said. "They [moderate Republicans] couldn't stand the pressure after that."

In Hilleary's view, Republicans in 1996 "swam halfway across the river" and then stopped. And "after the government opened up we never really regained the momentum on shrinking the size of government," he said.

Today's House Republicans risk stalling in midstream too, Hilleary noted.

"Whether it was a good idea or not is to be determined," he said of House Republicans today. "But the thing is if they decide to pull the trigger ... if they don't ride it out, it'll be the same situation. They don't win anything and they get bludgeoned."

photo Van Hilleary speaks to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters.


Duncan calls Obama "the most left-wing president this country has ever had" and worries there's nothing stopping the nation's $17 trillion debt from growing even larger.

"And then you add a new entitlement," Duncan said, referring to the health law Republicans call Obamacare. People in his district don't like it, he added.

While downplaying the effects of the current shutdown, Duncan said he does realize the impact of furloughs on some 800,000 federal workers. And he raised concerns about what happens if the current fight gets entangled with the upcoming need to raise the federal debt limit.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, a Nashville Democrat, also was in Washington during the mid-1990s shutdowns.

"I just don't think shutdowns are a good way of running the government or running the railroad" because they "impact people's feelings toward government and shatter people's confidence," Clement said.

He has told Democratic and Republican friends still serving that "if you don't start trying to agree ... it's going to hurt both parties. it's not just going to hurt one. It's going to hurt Republican and Democratic incumbents."

Wamp and Clement agree that part of the problem is the quality of leadership in Washington today.

House Republicans' confrontation was "ill-conceived from the beginning," Wamp said, citing Republican Sen. John McCain's initial warning that they didn't hold a winning hand.

Wamp said he's no fan of Obama and faults him for pushing health reform through without a single Republican vote, but "everybody really knows that holding up the continuing resolution wouldn't work" to derail it. Wamp pointed specifically at Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who went along with tea party members' demands for the strategy.

Clement faults Obama for pushing such an ambitious health care overhaul in one fell swoop rather than incrementally.

"But the Obama crowd was determined to do something that Bill Clinton and others hadn't been able to do in 50 years," Clement said.

He also believes Obama has failed to reach out to Democratic and Republican rank-and-file members.

Wamp and Clement also said drawing congressional district boundaries that favor a single party favors the extremes over the middle. Wamp noted that in 2012, only 10 Republicans were elected in congressional districts won by Obama and only 10 Democrats in districts won by Republican Mitt Romney.

Congressmen with moderate tendencies have to bolster themselves from primary attacks from more conservative party members, they said.

So how to get things resolved quickly? Clement has a plan.

"Send the air traffic controllers home and if you shut down all the air service I assure you that within minutes the shutdown would be over and people would be back to work."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.