Today in 1995: The Federal Government enters its most severe shutdown to date

November 14, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryIn last week’s elections, Republicans captured majority control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats.  The last time that this happened was in 1994, when Republicans captured control of both the U.S. House and Senate in the midterm elections of that year.

The next year, unfortunately, marked the beginning of years of political gridlock, with the Republican-held Congress seeking to stymie the Democratic President Bill Clinton’s agenda wherever it could.  It was because of this gridlock that the federal government experienced its longest and most severe shutdown of the federal government (to that date) on November 14, 1995 – 19 years ago today.

The shutdown, which was the first of two between November of 1995 and January of 1996, lasted only five days.  However, as mentioned above, it was the first full government shutdown in U.S. history, and it was essentially caused by a dispute over the federal budget.

Specifically, after newly installed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich failed to implement many of the policies laid out in the Republican Party’s 1994 “Contract with America” (a campaign document that, among other things, promised to cut federal spending and introduce a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the federal budget), Gingrich shifted his focus directly to the federal budget, demanding steep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs for the fiscal year 1996 budget.

Clinton refused these demands, and Gingrich refused to raise the debt ceiling in response.  After months of impasse, the continuing resolution that had kept the government running past the end of the previous fiscal year expired at midnight on November 13, and with the absence of an approved budget for the new fiscal year, the federal government shut down all non-essential services.

Although the shutdown lasted just five days, it was only stopped by Congress’s enactment of a temporary spending bill, which didn’t resolve any of the underlying conflict between the president and Congress.  As such, a second, full government shutdown occurred on December 16, 1995, and this one, which remains the longest such shutdown in U.S. history, lasted until January 6, 1996 – a total of 22 days.

The shutdown was eventually resolved by, of all things, a compromise: a budget that included modest spending cuts and modest tax increases.  The political damage had already been done, though, with the bulk of the electorate blaming the Republicans in Congress for the shutdown.  President Clinton’s approval ratings, on the other hand, rose to their highest levels since he was elected after the shutdown ended, and many believe that the standoff played a significant role in his sweeping reelection later in 1996.

Sadly, politics were not the only thing affected by the shutdown: 368 national parks were closed during the shutdown, resulting in the loss of approximately 7 million visitors; recruitment of federal law enforcement officials, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents, was reportedly cancelled; 200,000 applications for passports went unprocessed; health and welfare services for military veterans were cut, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased its activities.

Regardless of the degree to which the negative impacts outweighed the benefits of the shutdown, collective memory is short, and the federal government entered yet another shutdown last year, as a result, once again, of a standoff between a Democratic president and a Republican-held House of Representatives.  And it was again because of federal spending – specifically, over Republican efforts to repeal or defund Obamacare as a condition of any budget to be agreed to.

Last year’s shutdown was resolved not so much by compromise as some in the Republican leadership realizing the fight wasn’t worth the toll it would take on the party in the long run.  The only concession that Democrats gave in the budget bill that ended the shutdown was slightly stricter income verification regulations for those receiving subsidized health insurance under the ACA.

Of course, this most recent shutdown didn’t have the same negative impact on Republicans that the 1995-1996 one did, with Republicans making gains in both the U.S. Senate and the House (although 1996 was a presidential election year, rather than a midterm one as 2014, making a true comparison difficult).

In any case, very little ever seems to get accomplished by federal government shutdowns, especially compared to the costs incurred nationally (and internationally, if one considers the negative effect on the U.S.’s credit rating).

Just as it hasn’t stopped politicians in the past – both in 1995 and 2013 – the negative effects of a government shutdown will likely remain unlikely to deter future politicians from similar courses of action.