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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Congress in Times of Disruption: A Historical Overview

Donald A. Ritchie, Historian of the U.S. Senate
Washington, DC
March 10, 2011

Date: 03/10/2011 Location: Washington, DC. Description: Donald A. Ritchie, Historian of the U.S. Senate, briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center on ''Congress in Times of Disruption: A Historical Overview.'' - State Dept ImageVideo

1:00 P.M., EDT

MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. If you haven’t done so already, I’ll ask you to silence your cell phone. We have with us today Donald Ritchie, who is the Historian of the U.S. Senate. He’s going to be talking to you today about disruptions in government and he’s going to give us an historical context. Now, the U.S. Senate Historian’s Office is a nonpartisan agency, so he’s not going to be speculating on anything that’s going on with the current budget crisis, but he’s really here to just talk to you about what’s happened in the past, and more specifically about what happened in 1995, because that kind of mirrors what’s going on right now.

So before we start, how about we all just go around the table and introduce ourselves, and then Mr. Ritchie will give some opening comments, and then we’ll open it up for questions. So why don’t you start, Kathleen? And please give your agency as well.

QUESTION: My name is Kathleen Gomes. I’m a U.S. correspondent for a Portuguese newspaper, daily newspaper called Publico.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Fengfeng Wang. I’m from China and I work for Xinhua News Agency, and we have never have government disruptions. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Nikolay Zimin, Russian, correspondent to daily Itogi.

QUESTION: Michal Kubal with Czech television.

QUESTION: Arshad Mahmud. I’m the Washington correspondent for (inaudible) in Bangladesh.

QUESTION: Bill Reinckins, State Department Bureau of Central and South Asia.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

MR. RITCHIE: Very good. Well, I’m very pleased to be here. I was saying earlier that my biggest single constituency at the Senate Historical Office are journalists because people – American journalists and foreign correspondents call our office every day, usually because something has happened and they want to know when was the last time it happened, would it be accurate to say such and such, what does it mean. The peculiar language on Capitol Hill can sometimes throw off even people who think they understand the way that Congress operates. And so over the years we have compiled statistics on just about everything that Congress does. And I can – these days it’s quite nice; I can actually just PDF my charts out to anyone.

For instance, right now we’ve had a lot of questions in the last week about how many retirements there are in an average congress. We’re up to about eight, and is that the highest? Well, actually, the highest was 13 in 1996. And so that helps the people in putting a story together that they won’t say it’s the first time if, in fact, it’s happened before, and also that they can understand what the previous attempts were.

And I’m going to talk a little bit today about disruptions in governments and the fact that disruptions in government in the U.S. are nothing new. In fact, our Constitution was really written to force disruptions to some degree because we separated our presidents and congress and the courts. And we also separated Congress into two bodies. And one famous political scientist looking at the American system said it was an invitation to struggle. And in fact, James Madison, trying to explain our system, basically said he had taken a lot of power and he had concentrated it into the national government, but to keep that power from becoming tyrannical, he had split the power up among various divisions. And he said, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” And I think that’s the philosophy that the federal government has operated on.

And so, actually, in times of quiet, our government is the most disruptive in many ways. That’s the time when the presidency and the Congress are contending with each other. Interestingly enough in American history, whenever we’ve really faced national crises, whether they’ve been over military crises or economic crises or whatever, that often is usually the time when the branches of government actually come together. And some of our most productive congresses have been in periods of disruption. So just as a long-term view on this is the Capitol was once burned down by foreign troops when British soldiers invaded the city.

QUESTION: When was this?

MR. RITCHIE: That was 1814 during the War of 1812. And – now, we had burned down the Canadian capital so there was a little – (laughter) – tit-for-tat that was going on. But that spurred the congressional committees – the congressional houses of Congress to create their first standing committees to really rationalize and modernize the way that Congress operated to try to develop some expertise. And Congress came out of that – even though their building had been burned down, they came out of it a stronger institution.

We’ve just recently put in the Capitol building on the first floor of the Capitol a very large exhibit on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. That’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which is – will be from now until 2015. And the focus is on the Senate’s role. Everybody focuses on the presidents and on the military side of it. We wanted to point out that Congress had a major part in this. And the surprising conclusion we came to after doing this exhibit was that Congress was actually more productive during the Civil War than they were before the Civil War.

In the decade before the Civil War, there had been a real stalemate in Congress between the nationalists and the states’ rights senators who were trying to decide what our policy was going to be, especially about what to do with these millions and millions of acres of land that we had acquired through the Louisiana Purchase and then through the war with Mexico. And there really was a stalemate over it. Legislation couldn’t get through.

Well, one of the advantages of secession was that all the states’ rights senators left. And as soon as they left, the nationalist senators enacted in 1861 and 1862 laws that had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War but were actually laws that they had been trying to do.

For instance, the Homestead Act to give land to farmers who were going to go – free land if you were willing to farm the land. Or the land-grant colleges which founded many great American universities from Cornell to Berkley to Wisconsin and others were founded by this law that came about during the Civil War to give so much federal land to the states that they could sell and the proceeds from that would build the universities. The Transcontinental Railroad was passed during the war and it was finished by 1869. It’s quite remarkable how quickly that happened. The first income tax was enacted during the war. That did have a war-related situation. And a lot of banking and tariff legislation got passed at this time.

So in the most – single-most disruptive period – and the Civil War really is an example of the failure of the legislative branch to come up with a political solution to an emotional divisive issue. But ironically, once the country divided, the Congress was able to sit down and get quite a bit of work done. And we’ve tracked this all through American history.

Another example is a Great Depression. When the economy collapsed in 1929, the next election in 1930 was the last time that a sitting president lost control of the majority of the House of Representatives but his party hung onto the majority in the Senate. So 1930 is the last time since 2010 that this had happened. And the incoming Democratic majority in the House at that time where there’s a Republican president and a Republican Senate, they didn’t have any solution to the economic crisis.

And the first thing they did was to hold out the olive branch to President Herbert Hoover and say whatever you want to do, I mean, we’ll support you to get this country of this depression. President Hoover got some very bad advice from his White House staff who said no, no, no, you don’t want to accept their invitation, you want to stand firm against them, you want to campaign against Congress and you want to veto as much legislation as you can. And so Hoover rejected that, and when Congress then on its own passed legislation to try to put the unemployed back to work, Hoover vetoed it. And he made himself look like an obstacle to recovery.

And in 1932 then Franklin Roosevelt succeeded Hoover and carried with him a hundred new members of the House of Representatives and a dozen new senators so that he had practically two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate who were absolutely desperate to follow presidential leadership to get the country out of the depression.

An example of the kind of support he had was the emergency banking act that he sent down as soon as Congress convened in March of 1933. It was sent to the Congress. The morning it was sent to the Congress, the House passed it. The Senate passed it that afternoon, and the President signed it that evening. And it was a thick bill. So the one thing we’re pretty sure of is that absolutely nobody on Capitol Hill actually read this bill, but they would have signed anything the President sent them under those circumstances. Fortunately, it was a very wise bill. It worked and it did get the banks back into solid footing after that.

Roosevelt enjoyed great support from Congress all during his first term. In his second term, he overreached. He tried to expand the size of the Supreme Court, which had been overturning some of his legislation, and that split his own party. And so then for a generation or two after that, the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill was split between its conservative and liberal wings, and presidents didn’t get that kind of support that Roosevelt had enjoyed initially.

But it’s not true to say that in times of difficulty and divisiveness Congress still didn’t rally behind the flag and the President, because even though presidents like Harry Truman couldn’t – and even Franklin Roosevelt during the war couldn’t get support on domestic issues, Congress very much supported the President on foreign policy issues during – first during the First World War and then during the Cold War starting in 1947. A lot – even though the Republicans controlled Congress, they passed most of the Cold War legislation that Harry Truman asked for.

So my thesis here is that actually in times of disruption, Congress is surprisingly supportive usually of what’s going on in the White House. Now, you’re interested in the last time that the government shut down, and this is the exception to the rule, that here you have a situation in which the President and Congress really came to such loggerheads over economic issues that the entire federal government shut down.

Now, that was in – it was between December of 1995 and January of 1996 that there was a 21-day shutdown of the federal government. My wife still remembers this very fondly. She worked for the National Gallery of Art, and she says it’s the only Christmas holiday that she was really prepared for because she was home on leave as a – during that time period. The rest of us remember it a little bit more – with a little more anxiety about the uncertainty of that particular period.

But to put this in context as well, now this was – because the Republicans had won a majority in the 1994 elections, they had won both the Senate and the House, it was the first time in 40 years that the Republicans had taken a majority in the House of Representatives. They had a well-thought-out Contract with America where they had campaigned on very serious issues, and they wanted to enact it. And they did right away begin to enact parts of this Contract with America. And part of is it was cutting back on federal spending, and that brought them into – and cutting back a lot of programs that they thought should be abolished. And that brought them into direct confrontation with President Bill Clinton, a Democratic president.

Now, just to give you again a little bit more historical perspective, even though that’s the most dramatic shutdown of the federal government, in the last 30 years, we’ve actually had 17 situations in which funding was not – had not been passed, and technically the federal government was operating without funding for periods – usually one, two, or three days. Fortunately, most of these happened over the weekend when the federal government wasn’t functioning anyhow, and so there was relatively minimum disruption. Usually, it was Congress had to come back into session on Monday or Tuesday to pass a continuing resolution that would then allow the government to continue to operate.

But we’ve actually – in the last 60 years, there have only been four instances where Congress has passed all of its appropriations bills on time. Most of the time, Congress is having to test continuing resolutions to take us through from one gap to the other. And as I say, there were – on 17 occasions there were gaps in which technically the federal government was not fully functioning.

At first, the thought was that well, okay, we haven’t got our federal appropriations and we don’t have a continuing resolution, and that actually agencies can continue to operate but just at a more minimal basis. They’re not going to shut down. But in 1980 and 1981, Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti ruled that it was much more serious than that, that you would actually be in violation of the law if you kept a federal agency staffed at a time when the Congress had not appropriated funds to operate it. And so only essential personnel would – were allowed to be there, and 99 percent of everybody else was considered to be nonessential.

I was nonessential, by the way, as a historian for the House and for the Senate. Only the staff who needed to be on the floor of the Senate were considered to be essential back in 1995. And I should point out that most of the time we were talking about Executive Branch shutdowns. President Clinton, because he had disagreed very strongly with the appropriations bill that was sent up to him by the House and the Senate, vetoed that bill. And because they refused to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating, he also vetoed the Legislative Branch appropriation; not because he had any disagreement with the Legislative Branch appropriation, but it was basically if you’re going to shut down my branch of the government, I can shut down your branch. So the Legislative Branch was actually shut down for five days in 1995 as a result of this. And so we had to distinguish ourselves between essential and nonessential personnel.

The federal government has since in the – actually, it was in the 1980s and early 1990s in looking at this – has broadened the definition of essential personnel to include emergency personnel. And that’s emergency – any kind of emergency that would involve human safety or protection of property. So there’s a fairly large number of people who could continue to work even if the Congress has not passed the appropriation.

The 1995 situation was a showdown between two political parties and between two branches of the government, and the – basically it was on whether or not it would force a compromise or one side essentially would have to concede to the other. The leaders in Congress at the time were operating on the assumption that the voters were really mad at the federal government. They had just thrown out the President’s party. They had brought in people who had a very different view of things into government, that their constituents really didn’t like the federal government and that they would be cheered for allowing the federal government to shut down, and that the President would take the blame.

Much to the surprise of the leaders of Congress, their constituents were actually outraged that the federal government shut down. And this was in part because I think the average American wants a leaner government, a less costly government, a more efficient government, but they want a government. They want the government to be continuing and they want their government services, which can be anything from applying for a passport to going to a national park to going to a Smithsonian Institution museum to getting someone to answer a question about their veteran’s pension or their Social Security pension. People were angry that there was nobody on the other end of the phone to service them. And members of Congress got an enormous amount of mail from constituents complaining about the shutdown of the federal government and blaming Congress, not the President.

So President Clinton, whose popularity had fallen drastically in 1994 and 1995, his popularity turned around in 1996 as a result of the shutdown. And in fact, he won reelection in 1996, much – again – to a lot of people’s surprise at that point. Now, running against the Senate majority leader, a leader represented Congress at that time, although not one who had really wanted the federal government to shut down. Senator Dole was much more pragmatic, I think, than the leadership of the House of Representatives was.

The poster child of the 1995 shutdown was the Dutch artist, Vermeer because there was a huge exhibit at the National Gallery of Art of Vermeer’s work. It was one of the first times that the corpus of Vermeer’s work – almost of all of the surviving paintings that Vermeer had painted – were on display at the National Gallery of Art – a ticketed attendance. People from all around the country had acquired tickets to come to Washington to – there were – the public could also line up for the non-ticketed section. And my wife and I, as we drove to work in the morning, we would see people outside in the snow standing in line at the National Gallery to wait for the limited number of tickets. And this was now at 8 o'clock in the morning and the Gallery was not about to open until 10:00. So there was a huge interest in the Vermeer exhibit.

When the National Gallery of Art had to shut down and put up a sign saying, “Sorry, the federal government is closed,” there was an outrage from people who had gone to great lengths to go to this exhibit. And it was actually the first time that most members of Congress had ever heard from their constituents that were interested in anything artistic or federal aid to the arts or museums. And the curator of that exhibit, Arthur Wheelock, who is still at the National Gallery, has said that he thinks that Vermeer saved the National Endowment for the Arts, which the Congress was planning to abolish. But they were so surprised at how much popularity it had and that the arts had that, in fact, it took some of the steam out of that effort at the time. And it was just an example of the fact that there’s a lot of things going on that people don’t identify with the typical services of government that, in fact, are services of government and that people have gotten used to and that they don’t want to see disrupted.

Now, it’s true that the large class of freshmen who were elected in this last election to both the Senate and the House were not here in 1995. But in fact, their leaders were here in 1995, and I think the one lesson they took from that experience was that in the negotiations you have to stand firm, you have to threaten to do some draconian things, and it might even include shutting the government down, that the fact of the matter, shutting the federal government down is not a popular action and not necessarily one that people will reward Congress for at this – in fact, the majority party lost seats in the House in the election that followed the shutdown. They didn’t lose the majority, but their majority narrowed as a result of that. And so I do think that that lesson is still prevalent among the people who are in leadership positions. They have to convince their conferences of this, but I do think that has not been forgotten.

Now, there’s another side to this story, and President Clinton scored a huge victory, essentially, with this government shutdown, but – and his popularity came back and it helped him to win reelection. But the White House was also operating with nonessential personnel having to go home, and – although I can’t imagine anybody at the White House who actually would be willing to identify themselves as nonessential. And so during that shutdown in December ’95 to January ’96, they relied on unpaid interns who therefore could be in the White House because of – they were not federal employees. And that was actually when Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinski during the federal shutdown.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. RITCHIE: Yeah. (Laughter.) It depends on where you stand on this. But now, there is – there’s been a very interesting book that was published just recently called The Pact that indicated that at the beginning of his second term, President Clinton was actually in negotiations with Senate majority leader, then Trent Lott, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to try to get over some of the partisan differences that had limited them during his first term and to work out more bipartisan compromise, and that they were actually moving in that direction when the Lewinski scandal broke and went – wound up impeaching the President and having the trial, and that that desire ended. And I actually think that the author, Steve Gillon, who wrote the book, is on to something. He’s got a lot of documentary evidence on it. And when Senator Lott had his leadership portrait hung in the Capitol, he invited Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to come to speak at that occasion. And Clinton talked about how he and Lott were two Southern good ol’ boys who actually could, despite their political differences, work out differences in the back rooms at that time, and that there was a lot more congeniality than it appeared in the press at the time.

So this was my very quick history. And I’m going to leave time for questions here, but the summation on this is that the ’95 shutdown of the federal government was not the usual; it was the exception to the rule; that we’d certainly had other situations where continuing resolutions had not been passed, we’d had other situations in which Congress and the President were at loggerheads, we’d had other situations in which the country faced really terrible crises, and those situations usually were things – times that brought about more unity. I think the White House right now is kind of hoping that more bipartisan unity will emerge in this two years than existed in the last two years, and it will be (inaudible) to see what kind of negotiations go on between the two branches and between the two houses of Congress.

But the Senate and the House, by the way, are remarkably different institutions, even when they’re controlled by the same party. Now – and this is – it doesn’t make any difference which party is in control of these two houses. I once was talking to Senator Wendell Ford, who was a Democratic whip of the Senate, and I was saying how his Republicans who succeeded him, Senator Frist, had to keep reminding the Speaker of the House, a Republican, that the Senate was different from the House. And I said, “I’m sure you had to do that when you were in the leadership.” And he said, “Yes, about twice a day.” The House operates under different rules and expects the Senate to operate that way. The Senate’s rules are very different. What you’re seeing in the Senate right now are groups of four, six, eight senators coming together on controversial issues starting with the budget issues looking for where is the common ground or how will we get over the impasse. And this has actually been much more commonplace in our legislative history.

In fact, last Congress was the Congress that was unusual where one party had – for a little while at least, had 60 votes in the Senate. Fifty-five is the usual majority in the Senate, and that means you always have to find some sort of bipartisan common ground to get at least a few members of the minority party on board with the majority party to get anything accomplished. And I actually think that that is probably what – because if either party wants to get anything done during the next two years, we’re going to see more of that. Not necessarily the same coalition for every issue. The coalition that gets together on environmental issues may not be the same as the one that gets together on economic or banking or regulation issues. But people are going to see an opportunity to forge some sort of an alliance with somebody on the other side of the aisle to get some particular part of their agenda through. And that actually is – has much more historical standing than the situation that we just came through.

So that’s my attempt to try to put all of this in perspective, and so I’m happy to open it up to any questions that you have.

MODERATOR: And just a quick reminder, just for the audio and for the transcript, if you can say your name and organization please. Thanks.

QUESTION: Arshad Mahmud, from Bangladesh. We are all foreign correspondence, as you know here, and this idea of government shutdown is something weird to our readers. How come the government is shut down? So could you please give us some concrete example of how it affects the day-to-day operations of the common American people?

I did see ABC News did a fact check, and it actually didn’t really look very serious. They said, well, people will still come to their office and they will get their paychecks, except for the nonessential people, like what is – work for the Smithsonian or park police or (inaudible). So give us some concrete example of what it really means.

MR. RITCHIE: In 1995 it affected about 800,000 federal employees. I mean, it’s not just a small percentage. I would say in most agencies that were involved – now, in 1995 there were a series of appropriations bills, so some appropriations bills had actually been signed, so I think the State Department functioned at that time because – although there was a period I think the State Department was also shut down, because I recently talked to someone who was an ambassador at the time who said that the biggest problem was his own staff, the staff from the country that he was serving in, the local people, who would be – not be paid.


MR. RITCHIE: And he actually paid the salaries of his staff in the Embassy for a week because of the disruption that it would – and then the State Department reimbursed him when it was all over, because, in fact, everybody was paid for the – after the fact. But in many – those agencies that were included, it was the Treasury Department – no, Interior Department, I think, appropriations that were broken down. So in this case, in 1995 it involved all the park rangers at all the parks, other than the people who just had to stand at the door and make sure nobody came in and any other public lands that the federal government owns. And the federal government owns millions of acres of public land. All the museums in Washington. But then a lot of agencies within the – agencies dealing with Indian affairs, American Indian affairs, with – any agency that came under that appropriation.

And in our system, because of the divided power, the single greatest power that Congress has is the power of the purse.


MR. RITCHIE: Senator Robert C. Byrd gave a whole series of lectures on the Roman Republic and argued that the Roman Republic collapsed when the Roman senate lost the power of the purse, and he was a great defender in that authority. That means every penny that the federal government spends is appropriated by Congress. The President suggests the budget to them, but Congress can totally ignore what the President’s budget is. Now, the President parallel power is that he can veto that budget, and that’s what set up the collapse in ’95.

Usually when there was not an appropriation – and most of the time Congress didn’t get its appropriations done on time – usually Congress would pass a continuing resolution until they could reach – get over whatever the differences were. The difference in ’95 was they could not get the continuing resolution. If it happens again and if it affects all agencies, it would include the State Department, it would include every Embassy that the United States has, it would include services like Social Security and Medicare. As long as – they do have this exception of emergency situations, but routine services of the government would be unavailable.

And the fact of the matter is, the federal government plays a much larger role in the life of the average citizen than most citizens recognize. Until Franklin Roosevelt was president in the ’30s, the agency of the federal government that most affected most citizens and they were most aware of was the Post Office, getting mail from the Post Office. Once the New Deal started and the subsequent administrations, we now have a series of federal pensions, we have federal regulations. We have so many federal agencies, many of which were started in the 1930s that are still functioning that affect our agricultural system, that affect our industrial system, that affect just about everything that happens in the United States. And it’s so pervasive that I think people aren’t as aware of what the federal government does.

The big shock in 1995 was when people thought that services that they had always counted on would continue, and there was – they got a recording when they called numbers when they needed something. And they began writing to their members of Congress saying I can’t get a passport, I can’t get – I have a problem with my Social Security check, and they’re not – it’s not coming in.

So it just depends. As I said, there are a series of appropriations. It depends on what would be involved in this particular case. Like I don't know that if we face that again, if it would be an exact parallel to what happened the last time. But the fact was it was so unpopular and Congress really did take the blame for it, regardless of what former speaker Gingrich has said in a recent op-ed piece in which he said, oh no, it didn’t happen – well, that’s – he’s very much on his own on that. I think most members of Congress, most historians, most political scientists who have looked at it, have said – and most pollsters have said that Congress was largely blamed for the last shutdown. And that’s, I think, the psychology that would probably affect what’s going on.

But it remains to be seen. Right now, we’re in a different political climate and maybe people will say I don’t need those services right now. But that’s certainly not what happened in ’95.

QUESTION: From your historical overview, should we conclude that the White House has always something to benefit for – from government shutdown and therefore could try to actually cause that?

MR. RITCHIE: I think the voters are fairly shrewd about figuring out who – what’s in what’s each party and which party’s interest and all that. And I think if they saw that any branch of government was using this as a public relations issue, it would probably reflect badly on them.

Interestingly enough, one of the conclusions of people who studied the ’95 shutdown is one reason why President Clinton wasn’t blamed as much as Congress thought was the general assumption was that the Democrats were in favor of more government and the Republicans wanted less government. And so it didn’t – it was counterintuitive that the Democrats would want to shut the government down. Now, even if – even though President Clinton effectively did shut the government down by vetoing those appropriations. Of course, it was in Congress’s power to pass a continuing resolution to have carried them over until they could have reached some sort of an agreement.

So I don't know. I think obviously both sides are looking for situations that will improve their own chances of getting what they want. But I think the citizens are fairly perceptive in knowing when their leg’s being pulled by one side or the other.

QUESTION: And should we expect history to repeat itself, in the sense that – or are there – or are the circumstances different this time? For instance, in terms of economy, I believe that there’s a lot of --


QUESTION: The scenario’s totally different. And then there’s the Tea Party also, which is --

MR. RITCHIE: Right, wasn’t there.

QUESTION: -- this isn’t just a political issue. There’s also this popular movement that represents the popular will of the people that is also playing into this issue, I believe.

MR. RITCHIE: Well, Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. And that might be a refrain that sounds – well, the ’94 election that brought Newt Gingrich into the speakership and that changed the majorities in both houses was sort of a populist movement, very much like, I think, the Tea Party type movement that went on in this last time around. And there was this sense of we want to turn around our government and we want to – we were facing large deficits at the time, and President Clinton had actually raised taxes to try to deal with the deficits, which was unpopular, although, quite frankly, after this was all over with, they were able to balance the budget and create surpluses during his second term.

But it remains to be seen just what is the greatest motivation on the part of the members who are casting their votes. And I read the Congressional Record pretty thoroughly every day, and people are very much reflecting what they think are – is the popular sentiment, and one of which is that the public wants to cut government spending. But there’s a difference between cutting government spending and shutting government down. And I think that’s probably the biggest difference between the freshman class and the senior members of their party. And I think there will be a lot of negotiations going on based on that, at least of what people think they learned from history the last time.

MODERATOR: Could you state your name and the organization? Thank you.

QUESTION: Christoph Marschall from the German daily Der Taggesspiegel. We can see already polls what the public thinks about – and the polls shows a slightly different picture than in ’95. In ’95 it became pretty quickly clear that people would rather blame the Republicans than the White House. In these terms, what has changed? You talked already a little bit what might have changed from the perspective of the Congress men and women, but what (inaudible)?

MR. RITCHIE: Well, what’s different now is it hasn’t happened yet. And of course, the polls changed after the government shut down and after it was shut down for a period of time. And so we’re now talking about it in anticipation of what might happen. And so people are sort of waiting to see. I think the majority in Congress was still – at least in the House – was still benefiting from the fact that it won the last election.

And that was – the authors of the Constitution wanted a democracy, but they didn’t want too much democracy. Talked about an excess of democracy, and they wanted to the House of Representatives to reflect public opinion. So every single member of the House, right up to the speaker, has to run every two years. But they cushioned the Senate so that only a third of the senators would run in any particular election, because they also talked about the frenzy of public opinion, and they anticipated that public opinion would shift back and forth.

So the public opinion in 2008 was not the same as the public opinion in 2010 and may not be the same as the public opinion in 2012. And for one, a lot more people show up to vote during presidential elections than during congressional elections. So – and all of these members of Congress are aware of that. They’re also aware that when they run for reelection, every one of them, that there will be presidential candidates who will be on the ticket, and those candidates will sway elections.

In 2006 and 2008 the Democrats won almost all the marginal districts across the country and Republicans had lost them. Well, that was one reason why Republicans were able to stick together so effectively in the last Congress, because their people were fairly solid in their positions and they knew where they stood on those issues. They didn’t have as many – like the Democrats had the Blue Dog, the middle ground. Well, in this – in 2010 the Democrats lost all those marginal districts. But those marginal districts will all be in play in 2012 and it may be a very different situation.

So the polls will be watched very carefully, but they tend to be different after an event has happened as opposed to before. There’s a brilliant book that the Gallup Poll organization put out on the election of 2008, which I highly recommend. And the most stunning statistic in there is they began taking polls in – right after the congressional election in 2006, November 2006. And the frontrunner for president in the 2008 election was “Don’t know.” (Laughter.) So it’s quite remarkable how public opinion changes and forms to – at any one moment the public opinion polls are just a snapshot, and the public opinion in this country is extremely fluid, and that’s one reason why politicians, members of the Senate and House go home every weekend and they talk to constituents, and they try to get a sense of which way things are flowing. And it tends to be flowing pretty rapidly, and I’ll be very interested to see how this happens. But it could very well be that the public reacts very differently this time then they did the last time. You can’t take that for granted, though.


QUESTION: Corine Lesnes from Le Monde. It – I’m wondering about the articulation with the debt ceiling, what it involved in ’94, ’95, the limits, or if it’s (inaudible) debt ceiling might become later. So if you could address that.

MR. RITCHIE: The debt ceiling is a really tricky issue along the way. And for years when – because Republicans were in the minority for such a long time – they were in the minority in the Senate for 25 years or 26 years between the 1950s and 1980, and then for 40 years. And for years Republican members of Congress just automatically voted against increasing the debt limit. There’s just – it was just a sign of spending too much.

And I remember very vividly after the 1980 election, when Republicans won the majority in the Senate, and they came in on the first debt – and a lot of Republicans were voting against it. And none of the Democrats voted at all; they just sat in their seats. And it dawned on Republican leadership that the only way they’re going to pass the debt limit was to get the Republicans on board. And suddenly Howard Baker, who was the majority leader, had to really talk to people and say, it’s not a political issue anymore, it’s a governmental issue, and we’re in the majority and we have to act like it, and you’re going to have to bite the bullet, and you’ve got to pass the – and then when – finally when the Republican votes started swinging over to vote for it, then the Democrats all voted for it to pass.

And so there is a sort of moment when every – both parties – when they get into the majority they have to decide that the campaign is over and they’re in charge and they’re governing and they’re going to be held responsible, and they have to do things that they wouldn’t do when they’re in the minority. And Democrats have done the same thing. They voted against debt limit issues when they were in the minority.

I don't want to say this a Democratic or Republican position. I do think that a lot of it is the majority party and the minority party position, and it also depends on who is President at the time. Some of the people who were most opposed to raising the debt ceiling in the past were some liberal democrats who – Senator William Proxmire you may remember from Wisconsin once kept the Senate in session all night long – and I think it was in 1981 – to demonstrate that – to draw press attention to the fact that the debt limit, for the first time in history, was going to go over one trillion dollars. Senator Proxmire must be spinning in his grave right now to think that it’s up to about 12 or $13 trillion at this stage. But he was trying to draw attention to something that he thought that the Congress should be paying more attention to.

So it remains. That’s another issue that it could well be in play, but people --

QUESTION: But that was not involved in the shutdown?

MR. RITCHIE: Not in ’95. No, the debt limit was not the issue. It was the actual appropriations bills.

QUESTION: And how frequent is it that none of the appropriation bills have been past after --

MR. RITCHIE: Most – more often than not. In fact, in the last six years there have only been four congresses where all the appropriations bills have been passed on time. Some appropriations bills are and some aren’t, and some – many times we’ve gone through continuing resolutions that create – the process is very difficult. One of the problems is that appropriations is an annual process. It takes an enormous amount of time to deal with and there’s just – the bills have gotten so big and so complicated, there’s so much opposition to them that even when the chairman of the committee is ready and they have the bills ready to go, they can’t get them up on the floor.

And I’ve heard both Senator Cochran and Senator Byrd when they were chairman of the Appropriations Committee saying, “I would like very much to pass all of our appropriations bills this year; we’ve had them all ready.” But because of the political currents they can’t get them out onto the floor. The majority leader doesn’t think he has the votes, he doesn’t want – he doesn’t have the time to bring up that issue, and it doesn’t happen. So actually, it’s a rare occasion when Congress has done its homework in terms of appropriation.

My suspicion is over time – and it probably won’t happen soon, but I do suspect that someday Congress will go to a biannual appropriations, every two years for the two year Congress, because it’s gotten so hard to do it on an annual basis right now. Senator Byrd was very much opposed to that because he thought that would weaken the power of the purse. But when you consider how few appropriations bills pass and how much time it takes, it may be – there are a number of members – there have been some – there were some statements in the record just this week from some members saying we should be thinking about this. It usually takes a while before they start thinking about it, before it actually happens, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that –

QUESTION: And what would it take? Just the decision of the --

MR. RITCHIE: It would take a rules change in the two houses and that’s – it’s easier in the House than in the Senate.


QUESTION: Yeah, I would like to follow up on that and widen a little bit the issues, the general political context of it. We are seeing a lot of things which are in the headlines whether there was concern and how to deal with trade unions, whether (inaudible) and how to deal with public radio and even the death penalty now in Illinois. Would it be fair to say it is also a question how the public comprehends who is at this time, at the given time, generally dealing in reasonable terms, who is exaggerating? And that would influence also the public view, how we would look at this conflict about shutting down the government or not. And please correct me. My feeling would be that at the moment rather than the Republican parties already – though the year is very young, it’s already very much in danger to be comprehended as the party which is exaggerating.

MR. RITCHIE: The interesting thing is that public doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the government until the story --

QUESTION: Difference – their daily life.

MR. RITCHIE: Except on day-to-day – day, after day, after day. And then all of the sudden they get focused on it. And so we don’t know exactly what it is, but they’re certainly being hit between the eyes with a lot of news right now and what’s going on in the various states. The other – the thing to keep in mind is the American political system is also different from most other political systems, and it’s been resolutely two-party. One reason for that is our Electoral College system which makes it almost impossible for third parties to gain any kind of traction. Ross Perot, who spent a fortune of his own money and got 19 million popular votes, got no electoral votes, and his party disappeared. So our two political parties have had to expand their base, and then you have the big umbrella parties. And therefore, within the parties, there’s often a wide range of opinion.

It used to be – and in fact, when I first came to work for the Senate in the 1970s, both parties were remarkably divided. Each had a conservative and a liberal wing, and the conservatives in the two parties would vote together against the liberals in the two parties. So everything essentially was bipartisan. The two parties have gotten more cohesive, at least in Congress. But if you look at the voters that they’re appealing to, they are still a pretty wide mix. And so in, say, the majority parties, in the House parties right now, they have social conservatives, and then they have fiscal conservatives. And there’s the question right now as to what’s the crisis; should we be addressing the fiscal issue, or should we bring up the social issues, and should try to legislate, essentially, in what’s really an appropriations issue.

And, of course, there’s a great tendency to do that, to tag your favorite issues – if it’s unions or abortion or whatever it is – onto this package that’s probably going to pass because it’s got the votes, and it’s got the momentum on it. But that runs the risk of offending people who that’s not why they’re supporting you. And those people in the center that – the middle-of-the-road folks, the independents that both parties are trying to appeal to may react against that. And that’s always a – an unknown factor in the – in political – we have a very large number of voters who are registered as independents right now and who can swing considerably an election.

And the democrats are in the same situation, of course. They – and they will – when they were trying to build the majority, they campaigned fairly widely, they brought in the headstrong liberals, but they also brought in their Blue Dogs, moderates, and conservative Democrats as well. Most of those are the people who took the real hit in the last election and are no longer in office. So – and then they’ve – there’s a little bit of that as well.

There’s a famous quote from Rahm Emanuel when he was becoming Chief of Staff in the White House saying, “You never want to let an emergency go to waste.” In other words, we have an agenda we want to pass, and this emergency will create a climate that we can do it in. And I think there’s a lot of people on the Republican side who see similar situations. It’s not necessarily something that’s unique to our times. I think that – as I mentioned earlier, I think that during the Civil War when you think that Congress would have been paying 100 percent attention to the war, they were passing Homestead legislation and land-grant college education and Transcontinental Railroad which had nothing to do with the war. It’s never let an emergency go to waste. And when the southern secessionists left, nationalists who were left behind said, “Oh, this is great; take advantage of it; pass our social agenda,” which the voters actually were, in those days, thought that was a good idea. They didn’t object to it.

MODERATOR: Could we have – I’m sorry. I want to get – everyone to get their questions (inaudible).

MR. RITCHIE: Okay, sure.

QUESTION: Hi. Fengfeng Wang, China’s Xinhua News Agency. I want to know, politically speaking in 1995, what was the Republicans’ war plan? They just wanted to shut down the government, and then Bill Clinton would fold?

MR. RITCHIE: No, well, yes. They – this is sort of a game of chicken. That’s driving at each other as fast as possible to see which one swerves at the last moment. And their – they had a contract with America that they had campaigned on, that they had – it was probably the first time we’d had sort of a national campaign for Congress during an off-year election. And they had an agenda, and they had – they wanted to make changes, and they were using the power of the purse to make those changes, to make some very severe cuts, to abolish the program, to – it would affect everything including the welfare payments and other issues, and President Clinton just said it went too far, and he refused to sign it.

Now, the next step would have been to pass a continuing resolution and then to enter negotiations with the President to come to some sort of compromise. By failing to pass the continuing resolution, they allowed the government to shut down. So at that point, at least, the voters didn’t blame the President because they did think it went too far. And eventually, there were compromises that worked out. And eventually, take a look, for instance, at the welfare legislation that was passed in the next year in 1996. Clinton vetoed the first two versions of that that came out of Congress. He passed the third one, which basically reached some sort of compromise, things that he could live with and that the other side could live with. And I think voters were – are expecting that the one reason they send people to Washington is to find common ground, not necessarily to shut things down. And that was the lesson, at least, that came out of the ’95 situation.

QUESTION: Can I ask –

MODERATOR: Yeah, she hasn’t asked a question yet. Can we just get hers in? Thanks.

QUESTION: Svetlana Babaeva, trying to understand. My impression was that all budget issues are discussed well in advance and regarding kind of fiscal forthcoming year. So how might we take from economic tactical point of view how this situation may occur, and why nothing has been done because I think it creates a kind of quite fragile impression for day to day operation of the government and not only the government. And I mean, this will in advance planning process, and at the same time the shutdowns that occur. And second, what actually happened with this money? You don’t get them at all during this stoppage or breakage period? You are not paid at all or what happens with social security, your checks, and whatever?

MODERATOR: And your news organization? Sorry.

QUESTION: Russian News Agency (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Thank you.

MR. RITCHIE: Well, part of the problem with the budget is, yes, they are discussing it very early on. But because the President submits a budget that he has worked out with his office of managing budget and he thinks it’s a brilliant budget and he sends it to Congress and Congress can ignore it completely. And it’s quite frequently said the President’s budget is dead on arrival when it gets to Congress. They are working on their own. We have budget committees in the House and the Senate that then set budget limits for the committees, and the Appropriations Committee can’t go over those limits, and so then the money that these agencies decide – or the subcommittees decide, oh, how are we going to portion the money from place to place. And that’s the process.

But then of course, you have to pass the appropriations bill. And if the two parties are really in total disagreement, then the bill may not get passed. So all of this work goes to nothing along the way. And that’s where you get this stalemate situation. And each party then, each side, the two houses of Congress and the President are essentially trying to work what they see as the best budget arrangement – budget deal, and they’re trying to convince the other side to come onboard. Both sides are essentially going to have to give up something to get onboard.

Now, you did ask the question about salaries, and I get asked that a lot, especially by some of my staff. Now, in 1995, we did not know whether we would be paid afterwards. But when the government came back into service, they did pay. And now, in the past when there was – these short shutdowns, it didn’t – obviously, we’re just talking about the weekends in some cases – it didn’t affect anything. And even the five-day shutdown of the legislative branch, we were paid on a two-week system, and it didn’t really stop anybody getting paid.

But the 21-day shutdown that affected 800,000 federal employees, none of those people were paid during that 21 days. And there are people at the top who have enough money in the bank to sustain that. But the largest majority of people who work for the government live from paycheck to paycheck and have to pay their rent and their mortgage and their childcare, all these other things that are going on. And the conclusion at the end was that they were not – they should not be the victims of this, and the federal government agreed to pay everybody.

Interestingly enough, that was another reason why Congress took a hit because a lot of the people – the constituents who were really cheering the shutdown of the government were just furious that all these government employees got 21 days off and got paid for it. But quite frankly, it was the fair thing to do. And I can’t say what they would do under the circumstances this time; I can’t predict the future, but in 1995, that’s how it worked out.

MODERATOR: Okay, two minutes, last quick question.

QUESTION: You mentioned about this unique two-party system and no other party can come to power because of the Electoral College. And too many – and this is kind of a political theater for these two parties because they are sure about their power, even they lose power, they know that they will go to a think tank or some kind of lobbying. So my question is: Does the system encourage this kind of things to continue at least the kind a political theater?

MR. RITCHIE: It certainly encourages struggle. As I said – I started off by saying it’s an invitation to struggle. Our whole system is to pit one section against the other. Our constitution doesn’t mention political parties, and so that’s an additional part of it –

QUESTION: And by and large, people actually seem to be very helpless. And the congressman and the senator, they seem to just serve the interests of the lobbyists.

MR. RITCHIE: Well, the interesting thing is that Congress ranks very low in public opinion polls, like 11 percent, and yet most members of Congress get reelected. And that –

QUESTION: Because they have no choice.

MR. RITCHIE: No, no, no, they have a choice in every district. But people like what their congressman is doing because their congressman is working for their interest and coming home every weekend and checking with what – probably voting with their district. Members of Congress say, “I’m voting my district.” Well, they just don’t like everybody else’s congressman. They don’t like all those other districts. But we are a very large, diverse nation with a huge economy that’s split up in all different ways, and the way to keep it functioning is to essentially have all of these voices heard in Congress. And the system seems like a total mess, but it’s been working this way for the last 200 years. And it’s quite remarkable how consistent it’s worked over that period.

MODERATOR: And unfortunately, that has to conclude our briefing officially, but I’m sure that Mr. Ritchie will be happy to –


MODERATOR: -- answer any questions after –

MR. RITCHIE: I get a (inaudible) little plug. I can also say that I’ve just finished publishing a little book called “The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction.” And because I published it for Oxford Press, they asked me to say why it’s not a parliament. So a lot of the questions we’ve talked about are actually in the book and – which is now out. And it does live up to its title; it is very short.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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