The Government Shutdown: 3 Reasons This Time is Different

Last week I wrote a blog about how the instability in our political system that is causing this shutdown is the new normal. Soon after writing that blog, I saw a story in the New York Times entitled: Cruz, Tea Party Hero, Rankles Senate G.O.P. Colleagues. It is definitely worth a read and encapsulates the current dilemma many institutions are facing. Their power is weakening as the power of dedicated interest groups seeking to influence them is increasing. For this reason, our current shutdown feels very different from the one of 1995.  To be fair, I was only watching from the sidelines back then but, reviewing many of the articles from that time, there are some similarities and also some stark differences. As far as the similarities go, we obviously have a Republican House facing off against a Democratic President.  I think most of the similarities end there. The overall shape of the forces influencing this fight seem different. Here are some contrasts:

1. Then: The 1995 shutdown was engineered and presided over by the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. He and his lieutenants were in firm control of their conference having been seen as the architects of the 1994 Republican wave that took the House for the first time in 50 years. Now: We have a Speaker that has an uneasy relationship with a restive class of members elected in 2010 who don’t feel they owe their elections to the Speaker or leadership. In fact, these members most likely view outside pressure groups as more important to their election than leadership.

2. Then: The issue at hand was a disagreement about government spending and the shutdown came as part of the negotiations to work out a long-term budget deal. Now: The issue at hand is the Affordable Care Act, the President’s signature domestic achievement. The budget deal that President and Congress agreed to in 1995 is somewhat analogous to the Grand Bargain that has eluded the President and Congress for 2 years now.

3. Then: We had a President still learning to work with a new Congress and President who had yet to be reelected. Now: We have a President in his second term. Additionally, we have a relationship between the President and Congress that is already poisoned by past negotiation failures.

So what does all this mean? I wish I knew. I think we are in uncharted territory and things won’t play out according to the script from 20 years ago. The two keys to resolving the last dispute were a strong House leadership and a long-term budget deal. We do not have a strong House leadership and it’s hard to see what deal the President would cut to pull back on Obamacare. It’s hard to see how you make an agreement with members responsive to interest groups that thrive from a single-minded focus with little incentive to compromise. That said, something will eventually break to change the dynamic. I just don’t think anyone knows what that will be.