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What government shutdowns since 1981 can tell us about the state of politics today

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

House Republicans are struggling to pass spending measures that would avoid a shutdown of the federal government. A shutdown this week would be the latest in a growing list of shutdowns, a list that our professor Ron has been keeping for decades. Professor Ron is, of course, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. And he joins us now. Thank you for being here, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So I said decades. And I wasn't trying to make you feel old, but I wanted to, you know, prompt you to think back to 1981.

ELVING: You know, I don't need much prompting to feel that way. But 1981 was a salient year in the memories of many in Washington. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees were furloughed. And this is what it sounded like when you called the White House switchboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the absence of appropriations, the White House is involved in an orderly phasedown. All nonessential personnel have been furloughed. No one is here to answer your call.

ELVING: Now, this all goes back to changes that were made in the budget process in the 1970s, changes that made it really necessary for the president and Congress to work together to produce spending bills the president could sign into law. But there can be confrontations. And some of the bills don't get passed on time, and parts of the government start to shut down. There were three short shutdowns while Ronald Reagan was president and then another short one under George H.W. Bush.

RASCOE: OK. So four short shutdowns between 1981 and 1990.

ELVING: Yes. And then comes Speaker Newt Gingrich, first elected speaker in 1994. And he was leading the first Republican majority the House had had in 40 years. He and they were spoiling for a fight. And the Republicans also had control of the Senate, so they could play rough. They sent spending bills to President Bill Clinton in 1995 that met none of his criteria and were meant to provoke a power struggle. He vetoed them, and all nonemergency functions of the government started shutting down in November. The first time around it was just for five days, but in December and into January, it was a full three weeks.

RASCOE: The Lewinsky affair has a connection to that second shutdown, right?

ELVING: Yes. Everyone at the White House was at the office at all hours. And that is apparently when the president began his affair with Lewinsky. Of course, none of that came to public attention until more than a year later. And then Clinton's denials, including testimony to a grand jury, led to his impeachment late in 1998 and his acquittal by the Senate the following February.

RASCOE: And there weren't a lot of shutdowns for a while. But then, like, what happened to revive the shutdown as a political move?

ELVING: We did not see the weapon used for almost 17 years, no shutdowns over the two terms of President George W. Bush or the first term of President Barack Obama. But in Obama's second term, there was a newly elected Republican senator from Texas named Ted Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: Madam President, I rise today in opposition to Obamacare.

ELVING: Cruz was in the Senate, which still had a Democratic majority at the time, but he was able to work with a group of like-minded House Republicans who were willing to go to war with their own leadership in their chamber. And that rebellion was enough to tank the spending process that fall, 2013, and shut down the government for just over two weeks.

RASCOE: So there were - it was two weeks in 2013. You had three weeks in the mid-'90s. But I think there's a record holder, right? Like, those aren't the longest shutdowns.

ELVING: Not anymore. The most recent shutdown and the one most relevant to where we are right now happened in the winter of 2018 going into 2019. Donald Trump was in the White House and eager to see one of his big goals achieved before his reelection year. And that was the wall across the entire U.S.-Mexican border. Trump said he needed full funding of the wall and needed it right then. Government was partly shut for first three days, reopened briefly and then shut again for longer when negotiations again broke down. Both sides really dug in, and the shutdown lasted 35 days, five weeks.

RASCOE: Yeah, I definitely remember that one. Let's talk about the politics here. Here's Ted Cruz in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Bottom line - are shutdowns a good use of leverage or not?

CRUZ: Look. We should not be shutting the government down. I have consistently opposed shutdowns. In 2013, I said we shouldn't shut the government down. Indeed, I went to the Senate floor, repeatedly asking unanimous consent to reopen the government. And the Democrats...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Sir, you stood in the way of that.

RASCOE: So Ted Cruz seems to be changing his tune from what it was. I mean, is it because there is a political price for this.

ELVING: Shutdown wars, it turns out, are like some other kinds of wars that eventually end without a clear winner. In the 1990s, the shutdown hurt Gingrich's career, did not prevent Bill Clinton from being reelected. In the 2019 case, it's hard to say who benefited. And in the 2020 election, the shutdown was largely overshadowed by the coming of the COVID epidemic. If shutdowns do accomplish anything, it's the energizing of the political parties. Shutdowns have not been popular with the public, but they can be highly stimulating for donors and activists.

RASCOE: That's NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thank you so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.