Margolis: This is not your father’s shutdown

Norman Rockwell's portrait of President Richard Nixon. Creative Commons photo
Norman Rockwell’s portrait of President Richard Nixon. Creative Commons photo

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

We never had any problems like this under Nixon.

You won’t encounter that many folks who remember Richard Nixon these days, much less who remember him somewhat fondly. At times – when, for instance, he was not directing a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy – Nixon could be kind, helpful and a bit shy.

And pragmatic, at least when it came to domestic fiscal policy, perhaps because he didn’t really care about domestic fiscal policy. But whatever the reason, Nixon spent 5½ years as a Republican president with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, all without a single government shutdown.

In fact, the government shutdown was not invented until 1976, when Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, vetoed appropriations bills for two departments: Labor and what was then Health, Education and Welfare. But the rest of the government churned on as usual. Two years earlier, Congress had passed the Budget Impoundment and Control Act, which changed the beginning of the fiscal year from July 1 to Oct. 1 and raised this whole question of whether departments could continue to spend money if the fiscal year began before Congress and the president had approved their budgets.

There were a few mini-shutdowns under the next president, Jimmy Carter, even though he was a Democrat and there were Democratic majorities in both houses. Here again, though, these mostly involved only a few departments. They weren’t a big deal.

Reagan is remembered more fondly than Nixon by most of us who covered both of them. … But he would never have led a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy.

Ever (excessively?) conscientious, Carter asked his last attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, whether any department could continue spending money if a budget bill had not been passed. Ever (excessively?) conscientious, Civiletti said it could not. In fact, he concluded, a department secretary who allowed his staff to continue coming to work under those circumstances could go to the pokey.

Enter Ronald Reagan, who in November of 1981 vetoed a budget bill because it didn’t cut domestic spending as much as he wanted. This time, the whole government shut down.

But not for long. Hours later the Democratic-led House caved, passing a three-week extension with more domestic spending cuts.

President Ronald Reagan.
President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan and the House, led by his ideological adversary but occasional after-hours drinking buddy Tip O’Neill, had several such tussles, a few of which resulted in government shutdowns. But they were all short – three or four days, all of them over weekends. Again, they were no big deal.

The one going on now is a big deal, and the differences between then and now are poorly understood. It isn’t just that inter-party relations were more civil then. They were, but the differences are more basic, starting with the people involved.

Reagan is remembered more fondly than Nixon by most of us who covered both of them. He, too, could be kind, helpful and a bit shy (or maybe, in his case, remote). But he would never have led a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy. He was all for constitutional democracy, in a way that some of those who consider themselves his political heirs may not be.

At least as important, all the earlier shutdowns over the budget were … over the budget. They were disputes about how much the government would spend. Sometimes other issues were involved – abortion during the Carter years, and the MX missile when Reagan was president. (If you are under, say, 50, and don’t remember the MX, don’t worry. It is not important now and perhaps never was, though it certainly cost a lot of money).

But in the final analysis, the stalemates were over how much money would be spent on abortion or the MX. That’s why they were part of budget bills. The same holds true for the longer shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, when President Bill Clinton and House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich couldn’t agree on Medicare financing. Yes, their different visions of what Medicare should do was part of the problem. But the deadlock came down to how much money would be spent.

Today, spending does not matter. President Barack Obama and the Democrats immediately surrendered on the spending accepting the Republican plan that bakes in last spring’s multibillion-dollar “sequester.” Instead, this shutdown is about Republican insistence on scuttling the Affordable Care Act, a law which finances the system it establishes. Repealing it will not reduce spending (though it may increase the deficit).

In short, this shutdown is not about the budget.

So what’s it about?

Well, maybe constitutional democracy.

The guys who set up this constitutional democracy 224 years ago deliberately established a system in which it is hard to make major changes. First, the faction that would make the change (or, in this case, unmake it) has to win elections, usually at least two of them, enough to take control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The Republicans who want to get rid of “Obamacare” did win part of one election in 2010, taking control of the House of Representatives. But they didn’t win enough. Then they lost last year’s election. Their candidate who promised to repeal Obamacare lost to the president after whom it is nicknamed. Under the constitutional democracy established 224 years ago, then, they don’t get to make their major change.

Some of them seem to be in denial, not only about the elections that did happen but about the elections that will happen. In this constitutional democracy, they come around every two years. If the health care law is a failure – if people cannot get affordable coverage or companies start laying off workers rather than provide health insurance for them – then Republicans will almost surely win control of the Senate next year and the presidency in 2016.

Then they’ll get to make their major change.

That’s constitutional democracy. What’s happening now is … well, not quite an attempted coup d’état, but a step in that direction. It is an attempt to impose the losing party’s policy preference without going through the process of putting that policy preference into the form of legislation, getting it passed by both houses of Congress and then approved by the president (or overriding his veto).

That process is called constitutional democracy. This shutdown is an attempt to subvert constitutional democracy. Some of us who knew him suspect that Ronald Reagan would not have approved.

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Jon Margolis

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  • Jim Christiansen


    The assertion that winners of elections get to keep their agenda because they held on to power is absurd. Lets see you sell that line of crap to the Progressives in Wisconsin.

    Federal spending, whether on health care or the Tooth Fairy, is still, and will always be budget related. It’s always about the money, who controls where it goes, and the power it represents.

    Eyes wide open.

    • Janice Prindle

      I don’t think the article stated anywhere that winning elections made your party’s agenda a shoe-in. That’s not the issue here. The issue is House Republicans trying to take down a program that has passed into law and isn’t part of the federal budget bill, by refusing to act on the budget bill — an unwillingness to accept majority rule, an abuse of constitutional democracy as we had known it in the past. The article is pointing out that we now have a departure from “the way we were.” It’s the brave new world of Citizens United and a handful of crazy puppets, put in place by unelected, selfish rich people being able to hold us all hostage. Of course you’re right about money and power: in this case, these hardliners within the Republican party are acting on an agenda planned months ago and funded by the Koch brothers. Eyes wide open yourself: We are now seeing what it really is like to have, not a constitutional democracy, but a plutocracy.

  • virgiinia burgess

    Thanks Jon. Perhaps this is the effect of failure to teach basic civics in our schools. Modification of a law IS a very different process than failure to understand that the full faith and credit of the United States cannot be held hostage to an unhappy minority, representing less than 20% of the electorate. Something about a tyranny of the minority comes to mind!

  • Jon Corrigan

    Unless, Virginia, you’re the Attorney General – then you get to pick the laws you’ll enforce. Guess Holder missed out on civics in school, right?

  • Fred Woogmaster

    Mr. Boehner (and fellow Republicans):

    “I knew Ronald Reagan, and you, sir, are no Ronald Reagan.” (a line from an unwritten biography)

    Which demonstrates that all things are relative and that things change.

    To many, Reagan was the villain responsible for the dismantling of reasonable regulation and opening the doors to unbridled capitalism, and increased greed.

    His is now a standard we bring forth pertaining to political integrity.

    I thought this to be an excellent and provocative essay.

  • timothy price

    The US and even the world financial system is based upon the full faith and credit of the US government. But with Congress funding unlimited, undeclared wars without funding them through taxes, but rather borrowing outrageous amounts to spend, … well, there isn’t really any “faith and credit” left. The US has not had it’s gold audited in decades, and probably has lost it all to the international banks by now. Many citizens would like to see the US mafia style of government “of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich” ended, and the debt they have placed upon the future children of our country defaulted upon. Lets start over with an national currency from the US treasury; buy up the federal reserve notes and then revoke the Federal Reserve Act and the IRS while we are at it.

  • John Greenberg

    “But he would never have led a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy. ”

    Apparently, Mr. Margolis has forgotten Iran-Contra, which was a Reagan administration conspiracy to do precisely that.

    • Jon Margolis

      John Greenberg’s comment deserves a reply:
      I didn’t forget Iran-Contra. I excised a paragraph dealing with it because the piece was getting too long.
      Iran-Contra was an effort by some senior Reagan aides to evade constitutional democracy. Granted, one successful evasion can inspire another try. Still , a single evasion is not the same as the more systemic subversion undertaken in the Nixon years.

      Was Reagan aware of what those aides were doing? If aware, was he by then still able to comprehend the significance of it? We’ll probably never know.

  • Pete Novick

    Under Nixon, America got:

    – The EPA

    – The Clean Water Act

    – The Clean Air Act

    Through today, GE has spend more than a billion (billion with a ‘b’) dollars cleaning up rivers where they had in the years running up to 1972, dumped PCB’s.

    Under Ford, America got the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which passed in both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities.

    Here’s what President Reagan had to say about the EITC:

    “The Earned Income Tax Credit is the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.”

  • Lee Russ

    And it may very quickly not be your father’s world, either:

    China’s official news agency on Sunday said the world should consider ‘de-Americanizing’ the international financial system, amid the continuing threat of a US default.

    China has previously issued repeated warnings about the danger of a US default because of the threat to Chinese investments in the US.

    “As US politicians of both political parties (fail to find a) viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanised world,” the commentary on Xinhua said.

    The comments in Xinhua were part of a lengthy commentary against American hegemony since World War II.

    “The cyclical stagnation in Washington for a viable bipartisan solution over a federal budget and an approval for raising debt ceiling has again left many nations’ tremendous dollar assets in jeopardy and the international community highly agonized,” said the commentary.

    “Instead of honoring its duties as a responsible leading power, a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas,” but equally stoked “regional tensions amid territorial disputes, and fighting unwarranted wars under the cover of outright lies” the commentary said, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    So thank you very much Heritage Foundation, Tea Party, and other supporters of this demented extremist plan to use elected representatives to endanger the nation they were elected to represent.