The 1995–96 government shutdown
President Clinton had to deal with a shutdown of the government. He didn't have to deal with the blame.
As the federal government shuts down in January 2018, we remember the showdown between President Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress in the winter of 1995–96.
In Clinton’s case, Republicans pledged to balance the budget with their “Contract with America" while cutting social programs and repealing Clinton’s 1993 tax increase. The president was willing to balance the budget—and indeed wanted to—but he was opposed to Republican methods. Republicans were willing to test Clinton by refusing to appropriate the funds the federal government needed to operate.
The first government shutdown lasted from November 14–20. More than 800,000 “nonessential” federal employees stayed home from work. House Speaker Newt Gingrich publicly said he started the shutdown, in part, because he felt snubbed by the president during a flight on Air Force One. Other conservatives suggested that the shutdown wasn’t so bad.
The second shutdown occurred from December 16, 1995 through January 5, 1996. Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Americans blamed Republicans, and this pressure helped bring Republicans to the table to reopen the government. Today, with the GOP in control of both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, polling indicates Republicans will again receive the blame should the government shut down.
These are the recollections of Clinton administration insiders through the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program.
In the shutdown, first you have to figure out who are essential personnel and who aren’t. There’s some kind of a definition of that that has to be applied. We were construing it narrowly. Then you really have to figure out how to do the least damage. You know, the Department of Agriculture has all these greenhouses or whatever. You can’t just turn off the lights and walk away because everything dies—
Q: You’re not talking political damages then.
Rivlin: Oh no, real damage—you’re talking about real damage—how to mitigate the real damage from turning out the lights, as it were. There are just some things that are very hard to turn off. Those things have to be kept going. But then, mostly, we just sent everybody home. One decision I had to make was what about the national Christmas tree. It was December by this time, and were we going to have the national Christmas tree or not? It’s on Park Service land. This, I guess, got into the press and Pepco [Potomac Electric Power Company] said, "We’ll donate the electricity to keep the lights on the Christmas tree going." But then there were further complications. You had to have some police down there, some guards. The Park Service has to have their people down there. You just can’t let people wander. So what were we going to do about that? And some other company volunteered security guards. So I kept the lights on the Christmas tree, which might have been the wrong political decision. It might have been better to turn them off. But I didn’t think so…
Q: What do you recall about the dynamics of those meetings? Was there a lot of venting on the part of the Republicans about the President’s intransigence on this? Did you ever get the sense that the President was second-guessing whether this was the right thing to do? I’m just trying to get a portrait of this very odd time.
Rivlin: It was a very odd time. I found the Administration position very hard to defend because I thought that we should be moving further in the direction of budget balance. I remember one meeting—I don’t remember when it was—but Leon and I went up and met with Domenici, Dole, Gingrich, and probably [John] Kasich. I remember there were two of us on one side of the table and four of them. We had a new proposal that wasn’t much of a concession, and Leon—who usually took the lead on these things—said, "Okay Alice, why don’t you do it? You make this presentation. You’re the Budget Director."
They probably should have rejected it. I can’t remember what we were proposing, but it was more cosmetic than substantive.
So I did—we were in negotiation at that point—I said what our offer was. And then I remember hearing Domenici lean over to Dole and say, "That means it’s over." And Dole said, "Yes," just very sotto voce, and I realized we weren’t going to get anywhere. The meeting went on for a little while, but it broke down. They rejected it, and we went back to the White House. They probably should have rejected it. I can’t remember what we were proposing, but it was more cosmetic than substantive.
I’ll never forget, four years later and we’re in the shutdown with the Gingrich people, and we’re in the Oval Office and I remember Bob Dole saying, "You know, you could shut the government down maybe one or two days, but you go beyond that they come looking for you." Those are his quotes; I’ll never forget. I’m sure we were thinking of that time because he was right. We were able to get by on a weekend because you’re dealing with a few tourists in Washington, but man, you shut down the federal government for longer than that—If that was any indication—what the tourists were doing to us going in—you knew you were going to have a blow-up on your hands…
Remember this was a revolution, and there were revolutionaries who had been elected based on the Contract for America. I honestly think that deep down Newt Gingrich understood that this was probably the wrong thing to do. But I think to a large extent his hands were tied because he had created this group of members who really believed that their mission in life was to get their budget adopted, to get their contract adopted. And because they had been elected on that basis, they would lose the momentum if they capitulated at this point. So I think they deeply believed that they were going to show to the country just how deeply they believed they were right by shutting down the government. And also I think this is not a group of members that ultimately believes in the role of federal government anyway. To some extent, yes, shutting down the federal government, so what?
[Y]ou shut down the federal government for longer than that . . . you knew you were going to have a blow-up on your hands.
But also at that point Dole was running for president. He knew he needed the Newt Gingriches and right wing of the world to get through the primaries. So to some extent his hands were tied to do it, until you had the series of shutdowns and then Bob Dole finally said, “Enough is enough…”
So there was a series of things where the president began to do some things that I think took the high road, and it all culminated ultimately with the budget stuff and the shutdown. I am absolutely convinced that what the shutdown did was give Bill Clinton the opportunity to identify who he was with the public in contrast to what Gingrich and the Republicans wanted to do. And it in essence did what he could not do the first two years, which is to say to the American people, This is what Bill Clinton is about, this is what I believe in. This is what I’m trying to do. What the shutdown did is it created that contrast, it created that political leverage that helped the public identify who Bill Clinton was. That happening was, to a large extent, one of the deciding moments in terms of the President’s ability to get reelected in ’96…
It was all a blame game, who was going to get blamed, and the Republicans were hoping that Clinton would get the bigger share of the blame, but in the end, they got the share of the blame in the public’s mind.
My recollection is that there comes a moment during the time when we are meeting in the Oval Office and what’s happening now is we’ve got Bob Dole, Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, myself, the vice president, and the president. On behalf of the administration, I am presenting proposals to see if we can find a place to resolve this, and the primary issue again is Medicare. How much do you cut Medicare, how much do you cut Medicaid and some of the domestic programs?
I think they deeply believed that they were going to show to the country just how deeply they believed they were right by shutting down the government.
There comes a moment where we’re making an offer, and it’s like the last offer. The president is really bending over on Medicare. Frankly, some of us are concerned about whether he’s going too far. As a matter of fact, the vice president doesn’t particularly want him to make this counter offer, but the president says, "Come on, let’s try it. This might be the piece that breaks us."
So I put the counter offer up on the chart and Gingrich says, "I can’t do it. I appreciate your doing it, but you’ve got to move a little more, I can’t do this." And the President at that point says, "You know, Newt, I can’t do what you want me to do. I do not believe it’s right for the country. I may lose the election by virtue of not being able to resolve this, but I just don’t think this is right for the country." I think it was at that point that Gingrich suddenly realized this guy was not going to cave in…”
Q: What was it like being in the White House when the government was shut down? Did you feel tremendous pressure to do something or were you content to sit it out?
Panetta: You know, this was during the snowstorm. There was a big snowstorm, I think we’d gotten about 20 inches of snow, which was very unusual for Washington, and it was cold. It was actually an interesting atmosphere to be working in the Oval Office during the Christmas holidays. We had all this snow outside, and you knew the government was shut down. What began to happen though is that the Republicans soon realized there were some programs they absolutely could not shut down… So they [Republicans] had to make sure that Social Security was not affected, that veterans’ benefits were not affected, and that other important issues were exempted. But they began to make exemptions, they began to open the door. So the parks were closed and other things were closed, and departments were operating with parts down. But they started to get heat from the areas that they were closing. And as they were getting heat from some of these areas, they began to create additional exemptions as they were passing efforts at CRs [continuing resolutions].
I am absolutely convinced that what the shutdown did was give Bill Clinton the opportunity to identify who he was with the public in contrast to what Gingrich and the Republicans wanted to do.
That continued. After that Oval Office moment I talked about, it seemed like there was no way we were going to be able to cross the Rubicon here to cut a deal. Since the president made that statement, we knew it was a question of who was going to blink first. Telling the president, "The pressure is not on us; the pressure is on them. They run the House, they run the Senate. By that time we knew that the public was putting the responsibility for what had happened here on the backs of the Republican Party. So it was just a question of saying, ‘Hang on.’
We got a brilliant budget that led to an incredible year. Dole leaves. Newt and Lott realize they’re just going down the tubes as a result of the shutdowns and not getting anything done, for which they were getting the lion share of the blame. They began to realize they could lose this whole thing [the majority]. Consequently, they begin to cut deals with Clinton on welfare reform, tax cuts for small businesses, minimum wage, a little healthcare bill, and then ultimately the budget. They get reelected with larger margins, and Clinton does, too. The formula that works to win is the one that they then refuse ever to do again with Clinton and are made to swear, by their base, never to cooperate with him again. It was really incredible.
The formula that works to win is the one that they then refuse ever to do again with Clinton and are made to swear, by their base, never to cooperate with him again. It was really incredible.