In Washington, history is ever present. Presidents are endlessly compared to their predecessors. Senators and Representatives work in marble temples named for the great legislative giants of the past. And the Supreme Court's daily existence is rooted in cases of old. Known as precedent, it's proof that very little of what happens in Washington is really all that new.
To that end and to learn more about the current battle over federal spending, deficit and debt, it behooves 21st century Washington to do a bit of time travel. We hearken back to a time of great peril and impending doom. Yes, you guessed it: the great budget battle and government shutdown of 1995.
"The Republicans want to diminish the importance of the Federal Government in American Life. The President does not, and, in some instances, would expand the Government's role," wrote The New York Times on December 29, 1995, almost two weeks into the longest government shutdown in American history.
The battle over a growing federal deficit and long-term debt obligations drove the government to two separate shut-downs in 1995 as Democratic President Bill Clinton fought with House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Republicans, especially those in the House, believe they were elected into the majority last year because they had promised fundamental changes in the ways of Washington. They see compromise and deal-making as elements of the old ways that the public was fed up with.... The President and his Democratic allies have returned to the well that has sustained the party for half a century. Most Republicans opposed Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, and Democrats have never let them forget it," wrote the Times.
Additionally, the Times reported that the Republicans wanted to: restrain spending, cut taxes, convert Medicare to a voucher system, give states primary responsibility of Medicaid, cut spending on education, weaken environmental safeguards, cut Government research programs, and limit Government's role in food production. Not surprisingly, President Clinton opposed those ideas. Many of those ideas are still on the table today, so it seems that some things haven't changed all that much.
Again, the Times piece, now 15 years old, was prescient, predicting today's political rhetoric as it captured the battle of yesterday. "Republicans will describe Democrats as supporting ever higher taxes and opposing a balance budget because they cannot control their appetite for profligate spending. Democrats will picture Republicans as calloused fat cats who want to gut Medicare for the elderly and the disabled to pay for tax cuts for the affluent," wrote David Rosenbaum in that seminal review of the battle from December 1995.
Even some of the players in the discussions are the same. As the 21-day shutdown reached into 1996, the White House and Congress were holding a series of meetings behind closed doors. But some members weren't happy about the progress of the talks. "I sense we're at a crossroads," House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner told The Washington Post on January 4, 1996. "We're not going to play Clinton's game much longer." Boehner also accused the Clinton White House of refusing to offer its own budget plan because it would alienate its base. "It would be like an albino going to the beach without sunscreen.... He needs cover," Boehner was quoted saying in the Post.
But the battle then, as it is today, was one fought on principle and rhetoric - lacking a shared sense of seriousness of timing and purpose. On December 15, 1995, The Washington Post reported that "the two sides have yet to negotiate the substance of their differences over issues from Medicare and Medicaid to tax cuts because of their inability to agree on basic ground rules." The article quotes then White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta outlining the Clinton Administration's priorities: "Our proposal, let me make it clear, as always will protect our priorities, including Medicare, Medicaid, the education, the environment, law enforcement and avoiding increased taxes on the working poor."
Once the deal was done in January, many in Washington looked back at the unprecedented battle that had just occurred. "Politics has become more confrontational, more in your face, and some would say, more extreme," wrote The Chicago Tribune on January 7, 1996. "This lengthy shutdown occurred because of an interplay of many complex forces, including rising economic anxiety in America, a decidedly anti-Washington climate, the presidential ambitions of key players and the power of a committed minority - namely the House Republican freshman class - to force its will upon the system."
Later in the month, The Washington Post summarized the battle this way: "What was once an epic struggle between the White House and Congress over Republican proposals for dramatically overhauling the government and altering most of the major Great Society programs appears to have devolved into talks about modest, face-saving budget and tax cuts to get both sides through the November election," the paper wrote on January 27, 1996.
1996 was of course an election year, and in the end, The Chicago Tribune reported that the shutdown helped Clinton more than Bob Dole and the Republicans. "Voters liked the idea of reducing the role of government in their daily lives, but they disdained the idea that, if need be, there would be no government at all," the paper reported on October 31, 1996, possibly foreshadowing today's budget shutdown talks.
If the President Obama and now Speaker Boehner can't reach an agreement to fund the government past the upcoming March 4 deadline, the government will shut down again. Looking at the what happened in 1995 paints a very clear picture of what could happen in 2011. As Yogi Berra used to say, "its deja vu all over again."