By Rich Galen
By the time you read this, I fully expect at least two of the major cable nets will have a “COUNTDOWN TO SHUTDOWN” bug in the lower right corner of the screen. A shutdown occurs when the House and/or Senate cannot agree on legislation to fund one or more Executive Branch departments. No money to pay the employees. The employees are not permitted to do their jobs.
A shutdown, like everything else in Washington, DC, is more complicated than flipping a light switch on or off. Some – many – things that the government does are designated to be critical to the nation. Law enforcement – including the work of Special Counsel Jack Smith – falls into this category. The salaries of elected members of the House and Senate will continue to be deposited into their respective checking accounts because of the Constitutional prohibition against raising or lowering members’ salaries without an intervening election.
In the 1995-96 shutdown, I worked for Speaker Newt Gingrich’s political office. Newt had successfully led the “Gingrich Revolution” in the election of 1994, which ended in the GOP taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Central to the Gingrich strategy was the “Contract with America,” which called for ten specific legislative policy initiatives to be brought to the Floor (NOT that they would all pass). One of those was a balanced federal budget that arched over the main thrust, which was to reduce the size of the federal government and a concomitant reduction in the spending necessary to run it.
In 1995, Newt was riding high. Never shy about voicing (and defending) his positions, being Speaker gave the former backbencher from Georgia a soapbox, which was only matched by the President of the United States.
Unfortunately for Gingrich, the President was named Bill Clinton, who matched Gingrich’s ego, education, and political skills. Clinton and his White House team were constantly a step ahead of us in the Speaker’s office.
After one negotiating session between the two leaders, Gingrich described how Clinton had sat on one of the sofas in the Oval Office and cooed at Newt that they were the two smartest politicians on the planet and surely, they could work together and break this impasse.
Gingrich was understandably pleased to be treated as an equal by the President of the United States.
What Gingrich didn’t know was shortly after he left the White House, the White House staff crowed about how much better Clinton was and how he had bested Gingrich at every turn.
There is an old saying in politics that goes, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Newt is a former college history professor. Explaining is what he did for a living. Paul Begala and the political team in the White House weren’t explaining anything. They were warning about how the “Gingrich Spending Cuts” were going to hurt the people who could least afford it.
And they did it by reducing the position to the following: “Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment.” That was it. Everyone in America understood what those words meant.
Your mom was going to lose her health care. Your kids won’t get their schooling (or their subsidized school lunch), and the air you breathe and the water you drink will poison you.
The House GOP’s budget didn’t call for reductions in Medicare or Medicaid but a slowdown in the rate of growth. But, that had to be explained, and, well, see the rule about explaining.
Polling showed that the general public blamed Republicans for the turmoil, and it was generally agreed that the shutdown (and the unsuccessful impeachment of the President) led to the loss of five seats in the House and, ultimately, cost Newt Gingrich his job.