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The Last Government Shutdown Was Nothing Compared to 2013

David Ake/Getty

It's been 17 years since the last government shutdown. Here's what The New Republic wrote after it ended in January, 1996: 

As many federal departments and agencies lurch into their fifth straight month without the necessary appropriations to do their job, the leaders of both parties are spending less and less time searching for a compromise that will balance the budget, and more and more time deciding how to use the impasse to their advantage during the coming campaign. On January 22, Newt Gingrich assured an audience of conservative think-tankers that Clinton's failure to reach a budget agreement would assure congressional Republicans an "annihilating re-election" in November. Democrats, buoyed by public relations successes during the recent budget skirmishes, are no less cynical. "Look, you're dealing with people who are screwing you every day on Whitewater," consultant James Carville counseled Clinton, according to an account in The Washington Post. "Why are you giving them so much?"

Remember the deficit? As recently as a year ago, it ranked third--behind crime and unemployment--in a Gallup Poll that asked voters to name "the most important problem facing the country." In the wake of the protracted budget showdown it's back on voters' radar screens. In a Gallup Poll conducted between January 12 and 15, it topped the list of voter concerns (crime is now a distant second). On prudential political grounds alone, then, you'd think Clinton and the Republicans would realize that a year-long stalemate will fuel further voter alienation and anti-incumbent rage. There's also, of course, the small matter of the economy: the much-ballyhooed Clinton economic boom, its strength now in question, could be endangered if financial markets are again shaken by foundering budget talks.

Rather than succumbing to the narcissism of small differences, Washington's budget pugilists should take the rhetoric down a notch and lock in the savings both plans have in common--precisely what the president proposed in his State of the Union address. Leaving aside the radical freshmen, with their genuine, principled commitment to dismantling the New Deal by forcing the government into default, the differences between the president and Congress are far less dramatic than both sides are pretending. When Clinton released his first budget last June, a vast fiscal and ideological gulf separated him from the Republicans. In their conference resolution the Republicans had proposed a cut of $440 billion in discretionary savings programs. The Clintonites countered with $208 billion. But in their January budget the Republicans pared their proposed cut down to $349 billion; and Clinton upped his offer to $295 billion. That's a difference of only $54 billion--mere pennies when it comes to the giant federal check-writing machine. It's the same story with Medicare: the gap in projected savings between the two sides has been whittled down from $146 billion to $44 billion. And so on with welfare and other anti-poverty programs: a gap of $69 billion is now a mere $17 billion. And there is, of course, another sense in which the budget disputants are closer than they'd like to admit. Both proposals spare one of the major culprits in the coming entitlement juggernaut. Social Security--nearly twenty times as large as Aid to Families with Dependent Children--is spared by bipartisan consent.

As Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, explains, the oft-repeated argument that it is not the amount of money that separates the two sides but differences over the rules by which it is spent is vastly overstated. Though Clinton has refused to endorse the GOP's far-flung crusade to block-grant all health benefits to the states, he has followed the Republicans' lead by agreeing to allow Medicare beneficiaries to choose from among a spectrum of plans--not including the Republicans' cherished MediSave accounts, but encompassing HMOs and various other capitated health plans. He has agreed to cuts in provider payments that by 2002 are as deep as those in the Republican plan. And he's endorsed a per-capita limit on Medicaid spending, which would rein in the lavish open-ended grant system currently in place.

Judging by the apoplectic rhetoric of the GOP freshmen--"[P]ound these guys"; "Don't give them an inch," according to The Washington Post--you'd think the budget mess was about a thunderous clash of political ideologies. Maybe it was once, but not anymore. At this point, it's no puzzle why rank-and-file Republicans are digging in their heels. As they see it, they led the charge for budget balance, and Clinton has managed to steal the credit. But they should look on the bright side. Once he's cut a deal with them, the president will have to live with the consequences.