Newt Gingrich knows a thing or two about government shutdowns. When he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995 and 1996, the Georgia Republican was involved in two of them. In fact, they were the most recent examples of a federal government-wide closure before the one we’re experiencing right now.
On a recent edition of CNN’s Crossfire, where Gingrich is now one of the hosts, he drew on this experience to put the current shutdown into historical context.
"Tonight there is an amazing amount of hysteria and vitriol over what is a normal part of the constitutional process," Gingrich said during the Sept. 30, 2013, edition of the show. "The government shut down 12 times under Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. It was only shut down twice while I was speaker."
The U.S. government was shut down 12 times when O’Neill was speaker and Ronald Reagan was president? We didn’t remember that.
On the other hand, we did remember shutdowns under Gingrich, and we wouldn’t classify them as a "normal part of the constitutional process."
We decided to investigate.
What causes a shutdown is fairly simple: It happens when appropriations bills expire, and Congress and the president can’t agree on new ones.
Shutdowns have a constitutional basis, from Article I, Section 9, which says, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." This has been reinforced by the Antideficiency Act, which stems from an 1870 law that has been revised periodically over the years. The act provides exceptions only for "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property."
We found a list of recent shutdowns, from 1976 to right before the current shutdown, in a report from the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of Congress.
Gingrich was right on the numbers: O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, served as speaker from January 1977 to January 1987. Twelve of the 17 shutdowns happened during his speakership. Two others came during Gingrich’s tenure. (One each occurred under Speakers Carl Albert, Jim Wright and Tom Foley.)
Still, we found a lot of context that was at odds with Gingrich’s implication that all of those shutdowns were similar, or that they were a "normal" part of governance.
A fair comparison?
Gingrich equated the shutdowns under O’Neill with those during his own tenure. But we found the nature of shutdowns and the reasons they happened have changed significantly since the 1980s. Here’s why:
• Five of the 12 cases under O’Neill didn’t result in genuine shutdowns.
Five of the shutdowns that happened under O’Neill happened before 1980, when new legal opinions changed how shutdowns happened. Prior to 1980, many federal agencies continued to operate during funding gaps, assuming that money would be restored soon and that Congress didn’t intend for them to close down.
But in 1980 and 1981, then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two opinions that required agency heads to suspend operations until funding began to flow again.
The only activities that could go forward, Civiletti wrote, were those where there is a connection "between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property," or where otherwise "authorized by law."
So right off the bat, it’s not really accurate to equate the first five episodes under O’Neill to either of the Gingrich-era shutdowns, or, for that matter, to the current one. The first five shutdowns under O’Neill were hardly apocalyptic events in which hundreds of thousands of federal workers were forced to stay home.
By contrast, in the second and longer of the shutdowns under Gingrich, roughly 280,000 executive branch employees were furloughed, government contractors were laid off and government services were delayed, CRS noted.
• The remaining seven shutdowns under O'Neill were much shorter than either of those under Gingrich.
Of the seven O’Neill-era shutdowns after the Civiletti memos, the longest lasted three days, and the total duration for all of them was 13 days. That’s half the cumulative length of the two Gingrich shutdowns, which lasted 26 days.
In addition, three of those happened primarily on weekends, further minimizing their impact.
A one-day shutdown in October 1982, the Washington Post recently noted, stemmed from a particularly innocuous reason: Congress delayed a session because President Reagan had invited lawmakers to a White House barbecue, and Democrats were holding a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner. The funding question was resolved the next day.
• The seven later shutdowns during the O’Neill era involved a lot of horse-trading on fairly mundane issues, not stark, ideological warfare.
The Gingrich-era shutdown was led by small-government Republicans who wanted to aggressively cut back the scope of government. The current one was sparked by the imminent implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
By contrast, the seven later shutdowns under O’Neill seemed to be dominated by more run-of-the-mill budgetary horse-trading. The sticking points in these shutdowns included a grab bag of comparatively parochial issues -- raises for senior civil servants; adjustments in aid to Israel, Egypt, Syria and El Salvador; a ban on oil and gas leasing in federal animal refuges; water-development projects; civil-rights standards for universities; the percentage of U.S.-made goods and labor required in offshore oil rigs; and the sale of the freight railroad Conrail.
What the experts say
Donald Wolfensberger, a former Republican staff director of the House Rules Committee, said Gingrich has a point. "It's not the duration that matters so much as the disruption, inconvenience and appearance of dysfunction from closing government doors and shooing federal workers away from their jobs," said Wolfensberger, a congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Other experts we checked with found fault with Gingrich’s comparison, however.
While his numbers were correct, the differences in the reach of the shutdowns and their duration make it "an apples and oranges comparison," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Roy T. Meyers, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agreed that Gingrich’s "facts are correct, but his implication is not."
Several of our experts also cast doubt on whether any of the shutdowns were a normal part of the constitutional process.
Meyers said that "the normal situation throughout our history has been for agencies to be funded through appropriations bills, not closed because the lack of such bills. It is hard to imagine how the preamble's charge to ‘promote the general welfare’ is met by this shutdown; it was not met by the Gingrich-era shutdowns."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, agreed. "What we have had is 17-year hiatus from the breakdown of the constitutional process and shutdowns," he said. Now, he said, the breakdown is back.
Gingrich said shutdowns are "a normal part of the constitutional process," with 12 shutdowns under Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and two during his own speakership.
He's right on the number, but the shutdowns under O'Neill were quite different in nature than either of the ones under Gingrich, or the current one. It’s also dubious to suggest that shutdowns are part of the normal constitutional process. Just because they have been relatively common doesn’t mean they are the way the founders intended government to operate. We rate Gingrich’s claim Half True.