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Encore: The History Of Government Shutdowns In The U.S.


Deja vu all over again. Well, if that's how you're feeling about this shutdown, you are not alone. We are ringing out 2018 much as we ring it in. Back on January 18, we were on the edge of a government shutdown. And back on January 18, we summoned NPR's Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent, to give us a history lesson, a history lesson we seem to keep reliving. It's still relevant. So here's Ron, again, reminding me of a moment at the start of the Reagan era when 241,000 federal employees were furloughed for two days.


RON ELVING, BYLINE: This goes back to changes to the budget process that were made in the 1970s that made it really necessary for the president and Congress to work together in certain ways. And here's a news flash. Sometimes they don't.

KELLY: (Laughter).

ELVING: There were three short shutdowns while Ronald Reagan was president and another short one under George H.W. Bush.

KELLY: You said short, though - so in the grand scheme of things, not as huge a deal as they could've been.

ELVING: Just nuisances, theatrical gestures, if you will. But then Newt Gingrich happened. He was the new speaker. In 1995, the Republicans had a brand new majority in the House, and Newt Gingrich decided the budget was the place to go to war with President Bill Clinton.

KELLY: OK. What happened then?

ELVING: In November of that year and again in December and January, Congress sent bills to the president, daring him to veto them. He did, and that meant no new appropriations were made. And that meant all non-emergency functions of the government started shutting down.

KELLY: And how long did they stay shut down?

ELVING: First time was several days, and people thought everyone had learned their lesson. But they came back for a full three weeks the second time around.

KELLY: Three weeks - I had forgotten that. Now, have we seen that long a shutdown in the years since?

ELVING: In the fall of 2013, Ted Cruz was a newly elected Republican senator, and he convinced a large group of like-minded House Republicans that they could go to war with their leadership as he went to war with his as well as of course going to war with the White House. Barack Obama was president. And the big issue was Obamacare, and they wanted to cripple it in the budget. And they managed to shut the government down for about two weeks.

KELLY: To be clear, the military does not shut down. Air traffic controllers still have to show up at work. What does it actually mean...

ELVING: That's right.

KELLY: ...When they say shutdown?

ELVING: TSA still looks at your bags and so on. Much of the shutdown disruption applies to things that are not emergencies. But we do talk these days about 800,000 immediate furloughs in the federal government. More than a million other federal employees are told to show up with no idea when they're going to be paid. As a result, the federal government does not function well in anything other than the emergency processes. But it should be made clear, it's not as though the military is suddenly going to go on furlough.

KELLY: And does this actually save money?

ELVING: It does not because in the long run, all the same work has to be done, and all the same paychecks are always issued. And so in the end, it costs money because there are shutdown and restart costs. The frictional costs of these shutdowns are actually quite substantial - tens of millions of dollars at least. And as a result, they actually lose money.

KELLY: Do they actually accomplish anything?

ELVING: It's hard to see how they accomplish anything in terms of the efficiency or effectiveness of the government itself. But they do have the effect of energizing and emphasizing the differences between the political parties and the factions within the parties.

KELLY: Sure.

ELVING: They can be highly stimulating for donors and activists.

KELLY: Now, I had that conversation with Ron Elving in January right before the first of three shutdowns this year. As we mentioned, that one lasted two days. It ended with a short-term funding bill that kicked the can to February 9, when there was a baby shutdown - just nine hours. As for our current shutdown, it's now on day 10 and counting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.