November 7, 2013

Congress on the Shutdown: “What, Us Learn?”

By: Daisy Letendre

Congress on the Shutdown: “What, Us Learn?”

On October 4th, Rasmussen Reports released poll results of 1,000 likely voters. Participants were asked to rate congressional performance. With almost seventy (70%) percent disapproving, it’s safe to say that the American public is unhappy with their lawmakers.

Further, seventy-four percent (74%) of those polled indicated that they believe congressional leaders value the opinions of party leaders in Congress more than those of the constituents they represent. (See the full poll results here.) Congress’ 11% job approval rating hovers just one point above the worst rating in Gallup’s 75 year history. In fact, the last time congressional job approval averaged higher than 20% was December 9th of 2012.


Congressional approval has been on the decline for months but the October government shutdown gave Americans the opportunity to stop blaming Congress as a whole and start blaming Republicans. While I blame both parties equally for Congress’ poor ratings, the Republicans should have known better. In 1995, House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, were eager to confront President Clinton using the shutdown as a tool in budget debates. Once the government closed, however, the House GOP was heavily criticized and lost their leverage.

Following his reelection, President Clinton spoke to Congress: “On behalf of all the [Americans] who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again.” This warning from Clinton, which came in the form of his 1996 State of the Union Address, has obviously been ignored by Republicans in the 113th Congress.

Recently, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker reflected on the 1995 shutdown and the lessons the Republicans should have learned from 18 years prior. The three lessons he emphasizes are: “don’t lose control of your message”, “don’t get hung up on numbers” and most importantly, “accept the winning headline.” In both 1995 and 2013 Republicans chose to close the government because the alternative, keeping it open, meant an outcome they didn’t like. In 1995 the outcome was Clinton’s budget and in 2013 it was Obamacare.

Of the 113th Congress, 52 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the House were also in Congress in 1995; similarly, in today’s Senate, 11 Democrats and seven Republicans were also onhand during the ’95 shutdown. Taken together, these Members make up nearly one-fifth of the current Congress that has taken a class in Shutdown 101 before. Why, then, does it seem like only the Democrats have learned that when the government shuts down, the Republicans get the blame?

Daisy Letendre is an intern in Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Trinity College.