The Volokh Conspiracy

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New York Times Botches the History of Budget Conflicts and Government Shutdowns

The big change wasn't Gingrich, but an obscure ruling in 1980


David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick write in the Times this morning:

These threats used to be much rarer. For most of the 20th century, the raising of the debt ceiling and the funding of the federal government's operations tended to be sleepy, technical subjects. Members of Congress would fight over how to spend money rather than the basic mechanics of enacting that spending. Although Gingrich failed, congressional Republicans adopted his tactics during Barack Obama's presidency and did win significant cuts to domestic programs.

The new era began in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker, tried to force Bill Clinton to cut Social Security and other programs.

The idea that shutdowns over spending began with Gingrich has become conventional wisdom, but it's wrong. As I've explained in the Columbia Law Review Forum (footnotes in the original, but not reprinted below),

Before 1980, gaps in government funding did not necessarily result in cessation of any government operations. In 1980, federal officials determined that under the Anti-Deficiency Act, a funding gap legally required a full or partial shutdown of the portions of government that had run out of funding. In 1981, the Democrat-controlled House refused to agree to President Reagan's budget demands, resulting in a four-day shutdown when Reagan vetoed a compromise bill that passed the House and Senate. During the remaining Reagan and Bush years, the government shut down eight times after congressional Democrats refused to agree to the budgetary or policy demands of the Republican President.

During the Reagan years, the media often portrayed these incidents as Reagan shutting down the government. For the sake of consistency, however, if congressional Republicans shut down the government when they refused to pass spending bills acceptable to Presidents Clinton and Obama, then the Democrats in Congress shut down the government when they declined to pass spending bills acceptable to Presidents Reagan and Bush. This undermines the notion that congressional Republicans beginning in 1995 have played a uniquely rough and novel game of political hardball by threatening and occasionally following through with government shutdowns.

In short, what really changed was the 1980 conclusion that funding gaps required government shutdowns, something that Democrats took almost immediate advantage of in 1981. The major change in 1995 was that the media, with Gingrich's own self-defeating connivance, portrayed the president's refusal to sign budget legislation passed by Congress as Congress, not the president, shutting down the government.