Lately President Obama and his Administration have peddled the myth that the ongoing debate over government funding and the nation’s debt ceiling is “unprecedented” in American history. This newly minted narrative is part of the President’s latest effort to paint Congressional Republicans as intransigent and irrational people determined to destroy American democracy. This kind of rhetoric, though, is so obviously false that even many in the mainstream media, one of the President’s strongest bases of support, have taken issue with it. For anyone to imply that Presidents and Congress have never before debated the debt ceiling (the national credit card limit) or government spending bills they are either a.) Completely lying or b.) Demonstrating an acute ignorance of history. Frankly, neither is particularly comforting coming from the leader of the free world.
The most recent government shutdown, prior to the present impasse in the nation’s capital, took place in 1995 when Bill Clinton was in the White House and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House of Representatives. This shutdown, however, wasn’t a single shutdown as it has lately been remembered, but two separate shutdowns over the course of several weeks. The first shutdown occurred in mid-November 1995 following President Clinton’s and Congress’s inability to come to an agreement on a short-term spending bill, known as a Continuing Resolution (CR), which is also the sticking-point in this present shutdown. Congressional Republicans wanted to slow the out-of-control federal spending that was skyrocketing under President Clinton early in his term (though President Obama makes even the early Clinton look like a penny-pincher), thus they sought to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget through the CR. President Clinton, claiming that the GOP budget proposals were cutting too much, vetoed the CR, thus leading to a government shutdown.
That CR / spending bill was shortened to cover federal spending for just a few weeks, thus reopening the government to, supposedly, give Congress and President Clinton time to come to an agreement over a longer term continuing resolution (CR). After several more weeks passed, President Clinton and Congress came to the same impasse and the government shutdown again in December 1995 for three weeks. In the aftermath of these two shutdowns, President Clinton and GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich were able to craft several years of balanced budgets and real government reforms. The reason: a bull-headed and determined President Clinton learned that, in a Republic, negotiating with the people’s representatives in Congress is an obligation, not an option. This lesson was learned by the 42nd President of the United States because conservatives in Congress didn’t cave under enormous political pressure.
President Clinton understood that his legacy as President would be poisoned if he couldn’t learn to work with Congress and the opposition party to get things done. President Obama seems utterly unwilling, perhaps even incapable, of negotiating with Congress and / or the opposition party. Thus, in marked contrast with even a fellow liberal president, President Obama is digging-in his heels and refusing to negotiate spending, budgeting or increasing the national debt. Such stunning disregard for the people’s representatives in Congress will have the opposite effect of the shutdowns of the 1990s; instead of bringing the White House and Congress closer together to reach common sense solutions like Clinton and Gingrich did 18 years ago, President Obama seems poised to further poison the political well, and, with it, any opportunity to achieve important reforms necessary for the future of America’s economy.
President Obama is right in describing the current debate as “unprecedented,” but the subject of the debate is not. The President’s refusal to lead and negotiate is the only thing that’s unprecedented about this entire debate and partial government shutdown.