Ghosts of shutdowns past haunt government
The federal government of the United States came to a crashing halt, at least briefly. The forever-feverish mass media breathlessly described each step down the road with intense anticipation. Melodrama displaces reporting.
Much of the media today is driven by profits above all else. Entertainment has replaced serious reporting and analysis. This makes surviving serious newspapers all the more valuable.
In the current climate of nonstop political finger pointing, Democrats denounced Republicans and Republicans did the same to Democrats. Meanwhile, the public suffered — especially federal workers who depend on their paychecks and do not have opportunity or desire to posture like politicians.
Attacking the budget problems and managing the budget trends of our great nation is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. The scale of both production and allocation of public resources makes for enormous competition.
However, the pursuit of available resources and inherent advantages of powerful interests is a constant. The leaders who founded the United States experienced and observed this intense, ruthless battling firsthand.
Consequently, they vested the power of the purse in the Congress, which represents the people, increasingly broadly as our nation evolved. Simultaneously, Congress coexists with the powerful executive and judicial branches of government.
To some extent, the modern shutdown phenomenon is part of the legacy of President Richard Nixon. Since the administration of Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s, presidents followed the practice of occasionally sequestering funds appropriated by Congress. Nixon carried the practice to an extreme, reflecting his confrontational temperament and a deep-seated desire to assert aggressively the chief executive authority he had finally achieved.
In response, Congress passed the Congressional and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. This established the Congressional Budget Office, with a staff qualified to analyze in detail the impacts and implications of legislation, and the intention to focus the legislative process and preclude the practice of attaching extraneous items to budget bills. The legislation created new budget committees in both houses of Congress, and the start of the fiscal year moved from July 1 to Oct. 1.
Unfortunately, President Jimmy Carter effectively made the process of any federal government shutdown much more explicit and extensive, with less room than before for ambiguity in handling the challenge. In 1980, he asked Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti for a formal opinion on exactly which functions the federal government could carry out during a shutdown.
Civiletti responded by highlighting the terms of the 1870 Anti-Deficiency legislation and later statutes to restrict the president from engaging in tasks that cost money not appropriated by Congress. His detailed opinion is explicit that government must terminate regular activities except in cases involving “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” or activities authorized by other means.
As with other matters, Carter’s undeniable good intentions led to unfortunate consequences. In this case, one result is much more far-reaching disruption when the government shuts down.
In the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. New House Speaker Newt Gingrich immediately, aggressively challenged President Bill Clinton, and a shutdown resulted. Clinton skillfully put the onus squarely on the Republicans.
Intense partisanship notwithstanding, the people expect orderly basic budgeting from Congress. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson carefully cleared with Congress the budget for the next fiscal year before advancing controversial civil rights legislation, which he also secured.
LBJ demonstrated executive leadership, which we lack today.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”