Gridlock is nothing new in Washington, but few impasses have lasted longer or influenced U.S. budget battles or driven public disgust with Congress more than the government shutdown of the mid 1990s.
That's not to say the concept was entirely new at that time. Government shutdowns were a fixture of political wrangling since 1976. But they were often limited to the funding of certain federal agencies, leaving the public shielded from many of the effects.
That changed in 1982, when the Office of Management and Budget opened the door to a wide-ranging government shutdown in lieu of a budget. Eight shutdowns followed, none lasting more than five days.
Then came 1995, A calculated gamble by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to win a legislative battle of attrition resulted in the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
"The 1995-1996 shutdown was deliberately designed to be as broad as Congress could make it ..to try to show the public a lesson: that the public interest would not be harmed if large portions of the federal government stopped functioning for a period of time," said John Cooney, a former counsel for the Office of Management and Budget and current partner at Venable LLP. "
The plan backfired. The Republican-controlled House passed a budget proposal that ran counter to the domestic agenda of President Bill Clinton, who vetoed the bill. A five-day shutdown followed, then a brief continuing resolution, another political standoff, and a record-breaking 22-day shuttering of federal operations.
Much to the dismay of GOP leaders, the most visible effects of the shutdown were broadcast nightly on TV: the closure of national parks, the denial of federal services to the public, and the furloughing of federal employees who weren't paid. Frustration grew, with the public accusing Congress of failing to perform its duties, and a decline in the morale of the civil service emerged, lingering still today. In the words of Robert Tobias, director of business development for American University's Key Executive Leadership Programs, and former president of the National Treasury Employees Union, federal workers were made pawns in a game of political brinkmanship.
"Federal employees work very hard to serve the public, and it's discouraging beyond words to see that Congress thinks so little of the value of your program and the sacrifices you make that they are willing to shut the program down," Cooney noted.
The shutdown dragged on until Jan. 6, when both sides came to an agreement that involved a mix of spending increases, coupled with some tax cuts, but including an agreement to balance the budget in seven years.
Republicans deemed that as a win. But public perception was another matter.
"People sided with the president and understood that Congress precipitated the shutdown," Cooney said. "Congress had defaulted on its constitutional function, which is to provide the appropriations necessary for the government to continue functioning."
But instead of deterring Washington from repeating the budget morass, the mid-'90s experience has instead weaponized the shutdown in budget negotiations.
"The 1995-1996 experience introduced shutdown brinksmanship as a routine threat in the annual debates between the president and Congress over federal fiscal policy," Cooney said.
In fact, the play-by-play of the Clinton-era shutdown was repeated in 2013, when Republicans again tangled with the White House, this time over the funding of the Affordable Care Act. And once again, the GOP lost the perception battle.
"It's inexplicable to me. Nothing changed. The Republicans lost the second time," Tobias said, adding that if not for the distraction of the HealthCare.gov rollout debacle, the political fallout for the GOP could have been far worse.
“So history repeated itself. There wasn’t really a consideration for the adverse impact on the public or the adverse impact on federal employees. ‘My interests’ was greater than all of that.”