Without Electoral Consequences, Shutdowns Will Become Normal Again


Here’s a question: Why do you suppose that, until this week, there had not been a government shutdown since 1995? Given the history of such shutdowns, 18 years without one is a pretty impressive streak. In the 18 years before the last one, legislators forced the shutdown of the federal government 14 times—almost once a year. It was a standard trick in the arsenal of out-of-power parties to force negotiations on one pet issue or another.

In 1995, however, things changed. Under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, the House of Representatives forced the government to shut down twice, for a total of 26 days between November 1995 and January 1996. And whereas previous shutdowns had been largely symbolic, these hurt. A lot of people were furloughed from their jobs, and much of the country did without essential services for three weeks.

But there were consequences. A large number of voters blamed the House Republicans for the shutdown, and they took out their anger in the voting booth. Bill Clinton, who was lagging in the polls and looked like an easy target in 1996, managed to make the shutdown a major issue in the coming election, which he won easily. And for the next 18 years, everybody remembered what happened and nobody tried to shut the government down again. These results are not unrelated.

As pretty much everybody has heard, the government just shut down again. And there are a lot of similarities to 1995. Republicans in the House have refused to pass a funding resolution without significant concessions from the President, and the President is conceding nothing. Voters are blaming Republicans for the shutdown by large margins. And only 10% of the country believes that the Congress is doing a good job—about half as many people as believe that aliens come to earth to steal cows.

If this trend continues, there will be electoral consequences for the shutdown. But another narrative is starting to gain traction. According to this second narrative, everybody is equally to blame. Republicans are to blame, Democrats are to blame, Obama is to Blame, the Supreme Court is to blame, and the aliens (if they exist) are to blame. A plague on all (not just both) of your houses.

I agree that there is plenty of blame to go around, and everybody qualifies for some of it. Everybody is to blame. But it does not follow that everybody is EQUALLY to blame. In this particular case, there are qualitative differences between the two major factions. One of them has demanded concessions as a condition for funding the government. The other has refused to grant those concessions. These are different actions, morally and politically, and they bear different amounts of responsibility for the shutdown. I have my own opinion about who is the most to blame, but even if I am wrong, it does not mean that nobody is the most to blame. Assigning equal moral responsibility for qualitatively different actions is just a way of throwing our hands up in the air and turning on a ballgame.

As voters, I believe, we must affix responsibility for the shutdown on those most responsible and vote accordingly. We elect our congressional representatives to do a job, and when they do not do their job, we are the only ones who can fire them. If there are no consequences for those most responsible, government shutdowns will become a standard operating procedure for both parties whenever they are out of power.

I do not give either side a pass. Both parties have some ‘splaining to do. But it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that the overall dysfunction of the two parties generally translates into equally shared responsibility for this specific crisis. Mercutio was right to curse both Capulets and Montagues for the general atmosphere that lead to his death. But only Tybalt, a Capulet, ran him through with a sword.