THE BLOG
07/14/2011 11:55 am ET | Updated Sep 13, 2011

Historical Context Missing From Debt Ceiling Reporting

I've always been astounded at the near-complete lack of historical memory regularly exhibited by both Washington politicians and the "journalists" who purport to cover them. Nothing I've seen in the past few weeks has caused me to change this opinion, either, as the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling has played itself out.

While it's certainly understandable that subjects such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff or the Greenback Party would be considered so obscure and so removed from living memory as to be ignored, there is simply no excuse for ignoring a direct parallel to today's political news, which happened only two presidents ago. Because we've been here before with the debt ceiling. Well, not precisely where we find ourselves at in 2011, but close enough to the government shutdown in 1995-96 that multiple parallels can easily be drawn.

Back at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, we had a Democratic president in the White House, and a Republican House of Representatives. Then, as now, we had a huge political showdown over not only the issue of the federal budget, but also over raising the debt ceiling. Then, as now, the two separate issues had been locked together legislatively, at the demand of the Republicans. Then, as now, the president would have much preferred a "clean" debt ceiling bill. Then, as now, the biggest threat was the United States defaulting on its debts. Then, as now, one of the biggest bones of contention was proposed Republican cuts to Medicare. Then, as now, we had a bunch of radical Republican freshmen in the House. Then, as now, a presidential election was right around the corner, and both sides were jockeying for political position.

Of course, the situations are not precisely the same. Back in 1995 and 1996, a government shutdown actually happened -- twice. The debt ceiling was not raised during these shutdowns, but the country did not default on paying its debts. President Clinton actively used his veto pen, as the Republicans sent him bills which (among other things) wiped out whole Cabinet departments -- in other words, bills which the Republicans knew Clinton would not sign. The president strongly fought to avoid steep cuts to Medicare.

The biggest difference between then and now was that in 1995 the two crises happened at the same time... sort of. The immediate crisis in November and December of 1995 (and then again in January of 1996) was the fact that the federal budget for the year hadn't yet been completed. It had been due at the beginning of October, but since that point the government had been funded under a Congressional "continuing resolution" -- the same way they had always avoided passing a budget on time. But the continuing resolution had an end date. At the same time, the debt ceiling needed raising because the government was technically going to be out of money. But the deadline back then was the budget resolution -- whereas now the deadline is the debt ceiling.

The other important difference is that Clinton played his cards differently than Obama. Faced with a similar situation earlier this year, Obama did a deal for an omnibus budget bill which would get us through the end of this fiscal year. By doing so, he avoided a government shutdown. Clinton chose to have his showdown (and his shutdown) earlier in the process. What this meant was that Clinton's Treasury Secretary had some latitude in paying the bills. There are accounts which can be shuffled around in order to keep the government checks coming, and Secretary Robert Rubin did so. For which, it's interesting to note, the Republicans threatened to impeach him -- for not allowing America to default on its obligations.

President Obama, however, put the threat of an immediate government shutdown behind him earlier this year -- so that "non-essential federal employees" wouldn't be sent home, and the National Park System wouldn't close down (as happened in the 1995-96 shutdowns). But he punted on the debt ceiling due date, before the fact. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner initially told Congress (and the public) that the federal government would hit the debt ceiling on May 16. Geithner later declared that he could do some similar account-shuffling to what Rubin had done, and so could extend this deadline to July 8. He was forced to amend this as well, as the economy picked up and more tax revenue than projected came in. Which left us with August 2 -- the deadline staring us in the face right now.

But what Obama and Geithner have stated is that the new deadline is the ultimate deadline. There will be no more room to maneuver. No more Rubinesque tricks up their sleeve to shove the money around. This is a big difference from the Clinton-era crisis, because Rubin was actually able to keep things going for a few months by this sort of sleight-of-hand. Geithner will not have this option, because he has already been doing so since May.

However, even with all the differences between the Clinton shutdown and the current political fracas, how much of this have you heard discussed either in the media or in the halls of Congress? There are more similarities from the past than you might think. For instance, it's hard to tell (at a glance) which Speaker of the House made the following statement: "I can't imagine going to our [Republican House] membership and saying, 'We have this obligation to let [the president] have a wide-open credit card. No matter what he does he always gets to have more debt so he can borrow more from our children.' " For the record, that was Newt Gingrich, although it just as easily could have been John Boehner.

In fact, one of the most interesting dynamics in the whole fight right now is the power struggle going on between Speaker Boehner and the very-ambitious (and Tea Party favorite) Eric Cantor. There's even a hugely ironic parallel with today's situation that should be absolute catnip for the mainstream media to report upon (should they unexpectedly awaken from their collective stupor long enough to take about five minutes to do some basic research). Because back then -- as now -- the Speaker of the House had ambitious members of his own Republican leadership nipping at his heels politically. One of them actually came to Gingrich in private and let it be known that, while he had the utmost respect for Gingrich, the rank and file in the House (and other members of the Republican leadership) did not consider Gingrich conservative enough for their liking. An explicit threat was made: Gingrich needed to toe the Republican conservative line more reliably, or else there would be a leadership battle for his post.

The Republican leader who came to Gingrich with this ultimatum? His name was John Boehner.

 

 

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