The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

September 30, 2013

Should founders share blame for budget gridlock?

(Continued)

President George H.W. Bush used the tactic only once, during the budget wrangling that punctured his "no new taxes" pledge.

That partial shutdown over the 1990 Columbus Day weekend mostly served to miff tourists who found national park visitor centers locked and Smithsonian museums closed.

Shutdown threats were becoming ho-hum, just more Washington games. After all, what politician would relish a full body plunge into the "unthinkable"?

1995-96: The real thing

Cue President Bill Clinton and Gingrich.

Two big men with big ideas and big-time egos, the Democratic president and the Republican House speaker charged into a cage match and ended up wrestling the U.S. government to the ground. Twice.

These two shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, were the longest ever. Until now they were assumed to have taught politicians the folly of ever again powering down the world's most powerful government. Maybe not.

Serious issues were at stake in 1995 — the future of Medicare, tax cuts, aid for the poor, the budget deficit. But they got lost in the absurdities:

■ The shutdowns didn't save money; they cost millions.

■ Despite all the buildup, most of government didn't close, because of complexities of the federal budget and exemptions for essential workers.

■ Still, the first shutdown resulted in 800,000 workers eventually getting paid for staying home.

■ Despite public disgust, Clinton and the Republicans failed to settle all their disputes and soon idled 280,000 employees for another three weeks, through Christmas and into the New Year.

■ The effects rippled through the economy, harming federal contractors and businesses that serve visitors to national parks and industries that must work with federal inspectors.

■ The tone of the whole exercise was set when a huffy Gingrich suggested he had steered the government to a standstill because Clinton relegated him to the back door of Air Force One on an overseas trip. The public tantrum delighted Democrats and cartoonists alike.

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