The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

September 30, 2013

Should founders share blame for budget gridlock?

(Continued)

Embarrassed lawmakers made a quick fix. The FTC reopened the next day. The estimated cost of the brouhaha: $700,000.

Carter, a Democratic president forever stymied by his own party in Congress, ordered the whole government to be ready to shut down when the budget year ended on Oct. 1, 1980, in case lawmakers missed their deadline for appropriations bills.

A report by what's now the Government Accountability Office captured federal officials' dismay: "That the federal government would shut its doors was, they said, incomprehensible, inconceivable, unthinkable."

It almost happened. Funding for many agencies did expire, but just for a few hours, and nobody was sent home.

Near the end of his term, Civiletti further clarified the law's meaning. In a government-wide shutdown, the military, air traffic control, prisons and other work that protects human safety or property would continue. So would things such as Social Security benefits, which Congress has financed indefinitely.

1981-1990: Playing chicken

With the threat of shutdown as a weapon, budget fights would never be the same, and a big one was brewing.

Republican Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981 with a promise to cut taxes and shrink government, setting up a showdown with Democrats who ran the House.

High noon came early on Monday, Nov. 23, 1981.

The government had technically been without money all weekend, but Congress approved emergency spending to keep it running. That morning, Reagan wielded his first veto. He was making a stand against "budget-busting policies," the president declared, sending confused federal workers streaming out of offices in Washington and across the nation.

It was the first government shutdown. But it lasted only hours. By that afternoon, Congress approved a three-week spending extension more to Reagan's liking. Workers returned Tuesday morning. The estimated cost: more than $80 million.

The pattern was set. Over his two terms, Reagan and congressional Democrats would regularly argue to the brink of shutdown, and twice more they sent workers home for a half-day.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
State, national news