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It's Not The First Time Brinksmanship Closed The Government


After four days of the government shutdown, we bring you this thought that maybe could provide some comfort, kind of. This isn't the first time the government has been mostly closed for business. In fact, by some accounts, this is the 17th time that an impasse has shuttered federal agencies. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Thought it's been a while since the last one, government shutdowns have occurred fairly often in the last several decades. John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, says there are many reasons.

JOHN PITNEY: Some of them involve social policies such as abortion. The '95-'96 shutdowns involved Medicare financing, which was a fiscal issue but also an issue of policy. So the reasons are all over the map. The question is whether the differences are big enough to lead to a prolonged shutdown.

NAYLOR: The first government shutdown occurred back in the Carter Administration. It only affected one agency, the Federal Trade Commission, during a dispute between Democrats in the Congress and the Democratic president over the FTC's powers. It was quickly resolved and the agency reopened the next day. It was during Ronald Reagan's two terms that government shutdowns became almost a yearly occurrence.

JOSEPH MORRIS: Seven times while Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, the government was shut down. There were lapses of appropriations that required the furloughing or other disposition of the federal workforce in nonessential positions.

NAYLOR: That's Joseph Morris, who was legal counsel at the Office of Personnel Management during Reagan's first term. The shutdowns in those years pitted the Republican president against Democrats in Congress led by Speaker Tip O'Neill.


NAYLOR: Morris says there were many differences between the White House and congress that led to Reagan vetoing spending bills. They often centered on Reagan's desire to cut domestic and increase defense spending, priorities exactly the opposite of Democrats.

MORRIS: Also at issue at various times were the MX missile system and its deployment, some civil rights legislation and some domestic public works and water projects.

NAYLOR: The shutdowns never lasted all that long. The most the government was shuttered was five days. Morris says Reagan saw these as clarifying moments that focused attention on the issue at hand. It was during the Clinton Administration that the granddaddy of all shutdowns occurred. This time it was a Democratic president vetoing spending bills from a Republican Congress, including a reduction in Medicare spending that led to the government closing for 26 days in late 1995 and early 1996.

John Pitney says one similarity between that shutdown and this one was division among Republicans.

PITNEY: There was a lot of disagreement over tactics and strategy, and especially disagreement between the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in the Senate, who at the time were led by Bob Dole. In fact, it was at the end that Bob Dole insisted on ending the shutdown.


NAYLOR: Former Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan was a veteran of that shutdown, as well as previous ones. He says his constituents didn't mind it so much at first, but as it continued he began to hear from them.

BYRON DORGAN: The longer it drags on, the more people are disadvantaged by having a shutdown of essential government offices. You know, visiting the foreign service office and all of those issues that people care about, signing up for Social Security. So people would get pretty impatient if things drug on very long.

NAYLOR: It's unclear how long the current shutdown will drag on. Dorgan notes that in past shutdowns there have been intensive negotiations between the White House and Congress over money issues that eventually led to a resolution, something that's notably absent this time. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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