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 approvedand the deadline for the new fiscal
year has passeda CR keeps things temporarily funded. And the
talker showed that he understood just how simple the "shutdown"
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 chancenone at allthat 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 absurdit was absurd to think
that Clinton could "cause" a shutdown, and somehow blame
Republicans for it. If he failed to sign a "clean" CRa
CR that contained no disputed provisionsit would be perfectly
obvious who had caused the shutdown. There would be no way possibleno
way at allto 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 sceneVile
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
MATTHEWS (10/18): Bill Clinton, is he going to be standing
there with that sort of slightly crying voice that he develops...is
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 thatcould 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
governmentthe Congressappropriates 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? Simplebecause 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
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
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
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.