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27 October 1999

Our current howler: Shutdown send-up

Synopsis: A pair of talkers had some big fun, pretending a shutdown was coming.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL)
Hardball, CNBC, 10/21/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Rep. Peter King (R-NY)
Hardball, CNBC, 10/18/99

Commentary by Trent Lott (R-MS)
Hardball, CNBC, 10/14/99

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/21/99

It isn't as if a tabloid talker doesn't know how the system works. Here were his comments last Thursday night, as he spoke with Dennis Hastert:

MATTHEWS (10/21): Basically, under the constitution, the Congress of the United States appropriates the funds, you pass the bills, you get them approved by both Houses. You give a piece of paper to the president, you say, "Sign it." If he says, "I don't want to sign it," you give him another piece of paper, you say, well at least we'll keep the government running. And he signs that. It's as simple as that, right?

The no-nonsense talker was describing the process by which the federal government gets funded. The second piece of paper he cited was a "continuing resolution" ("CR")—the short-term authority by which the government gets funds when final appropriation bills have not yet been passed. When final spending bills have not been approved—and the deadline for the new fiscal year has passed—a CR keeps things temporarily funded. And the talker showed that he understood just how simple the "shutdown" thing is:

MATTHEWS (10/21): And the only way the government shuts down is if you didn't give him the piece of paper [the CR] that said let's keep the government running, or if he refused to sign that piece of paper.

Hastert agreed with that assessment, leading to this exchange:

MATTHEWS (10/21): But why would he veto a continuing resolution which would simply be a stop-gap measure?

HASTERT: I don't think he should, and I don't think he will.

The talker and the Speaker went on to agree that a shutdown just ain't in the cards.

Yep. It's easy to explain how a shutdown occurs. And there was never any chance—none at all—that a shutdown would happen this fall. Given public reaction to the 1995 shutdowns, it was absurd to think that the GOP Congress would fail to send Clinton a "clean" CR, or that Clinton would fail to sign it. And something else was completely absurd—it was absurd to think that Clinton could "cause" a shutdown, and somehow blame Republicans for it. If he failed to sign a "clean" CR—a CR that contained no disputed provisions—it would be perfectly obvious who had caused the shutdown. There would be no way possible—no way at all—to pin the blame on the Congress.

But all throughout the past few weeks the excitable press corps said otherwise. On Monday, a talker had sketched a familiar scene—Vile Clinton would somehow engineer a big shutdown, and get the poor GOP blamed. The talker began his inventive program in an obvious state of alarm:

MATTHEWS (10/18; opening voice-over): It looks like President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress are headed for yet another showdown over the budget. Which party will pay the price for another government shutdown?

In the discussion which followed, he continually suggested that Vile Clinton would just shut 'er on down:

MATHEWS (10/18; opening comment): Once again the game has begun here in Washington, the government shutdown follies...This crowd, Clinton especially, seems willing to play chicken with the government.

Clinton had already signed one CR; a talker gave no reason to think that he wouldn't sign more. But the talker suggested what the prez might say when the then-current CR expired three days later:

MATTHEWS (10/18): Bill Clinton, is he going to be standing there with that sort of slightly crying voice that he he going to be doing that Thursday night, saying, "I tried to keep the government going, but you know those bad people that want to bomb the world apart, they now blew up our government?"
There was no way a president could ever do that—could fail to sign a clean CR and put the blame on Congress. But a talker even misstated the way the system works, completing his sad-sack performance:

MATTHEWS (10/18): Everyone's read the constitution. We all know how it works, basically. [To Rep. Peter King] Your body of government—the Congress—appropriates the money. But the game the president has figured out is he has to sign an appropriations bill. And if he refuses to sign any appropriations bill, the government programs shut down. Right?

Wrong. The government programs continue along after the president signs a CR. And why did the shutdown occur in 1995, if the CR process is so all-fired easy? Simple—because the Republican Congress never sent Clinton a "clean" CR to sign. They sent him a series of crackpot CRs, loaded up with the very same budget provisions which were then under dispute. There was never any indication that Clinton would have failed to sign a "clean" CR. Congress was blamed for the government shutdown because they failed to provide that "piece of paper."

Indeed, over the course of the past few weeks, even Republican politicians haven't fought out this tired old battle. Here was King on Monday night's Hardball:

REP. KING (R-NY): In '95, I think Republicans may have been more guilty of trying to push the shutdown.

A pol can't make it much clearer than that. Trent Lott, four days earlier:

SEN. LOTT (R-MS): By the way, the record would show that back in 1995, when that so-called shutdown occurred? I didn't think that was wise at the time. We should never have gotten in the frame of mind that this was something we wanted to happen.

The comment doesn't make much sense if Clinton caused the shutdown. Speaker Hastert, on that 10/21 Hardball:

REP. HASTERT (R-IL): We're not going to let the government shut down and Bill Clinton is going to have clean CRs.

Which he did not get in 1995. Later, same program:

REP. HASTERT: We're not going to shut the government down. We'll give the president clean CRs, we'll carry on those discussions open door to the White House to come to work with us on these appropriation bills.

It is precisely what the GOP didn't do in 1995. Everyone knew it at the time, which is why the Congress got blamed for the shutdown.

But even as pols refused to state the old spin, one ardent spinner misstated the past. Putting aside his complaints about Gore's polo shirts, he served up an inventive reinvention:

WILLIAMS: Does [Clinton] still have the ability to put the kibosh on Republican initiatives, meaning, could be still pull a, orchestrate somehow a government shutdown, as he did [in 1995] with the 104th?

The answer, of course, is a thousand times no. A president could not create a government shutdown, and get the Congress blamed for it. In 1995, Congress was blamed for an obvious reason; it wouldn't send Clinton a clean CR. Republicans pols have stopped fighting this war. Sadly, Brian Williams keeps spinning.


Visit our incomparable archives: In 1995, everyone understood how the shutdowns occurred, which explains how the blame was assessed. But by this time last year, some time had passed, and reinventing began to occur. The analysts were shocked by David Broder's new take, offered up in the midst of impeachment fever. Relive reinvention! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/98 and 9/1/98.