Obamacare Standoff Recalls Pain of 1995 Shutdown

In four days, applications piled up and companies furloughed workers

September 30, 2013, 10:59 AM
PHOTO: bill clinton government shutdown
Bill Clinton addresses reporters before a meeting with US mayors at the White House in Washington, DC, Sept. 6, 1995.
Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 30, 2013— -- Whether a looming government shutdown lasted hours or months, there could be pain ahead for thousands of federal workers and Americans who will be affected by parts of the federal government's shuttering its doors.

Look no further than the November 1995 shutdown for evidence.

Workers lined up nearly 18 years ago seeking unemployment benefits, some of them federal employees who didn't know exactly how long they would be out of work without pay.

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A huge backlog of Social Security and Veterans Affairs applications loomed.

And private companies began furloughing their own employees when federal agencies abruptly halted contracts.In only a matter of days, the effects of thousands of idle federal employees, halted benefits, delays in services and high uncertainty began to ripple through the country, and even oversees.

Tourists hoping to secure visas to visit the United States? Out of luck.

Agencies this week released their shutdown plans that would blunt the worst of the impact of the 1995 shutdown.

Visa and passport applications will continue, Social Security applications will be accepted and, unlike in 1995, the Department of Defense plans to keep government-run schools open and the Post Office will still deliver mail.

But with most agencies expecting to operate with fewer staff on hand, delays in processing services are all but certain and could persist even after funding resumes.

The political impasse seemed equally difficult to overcome in 1995, and the political consequences could be similar.

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President Bill Clinton, locked in negotiations with a Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, canceled a planned trip to Japan and sent Vice President Al Gore in his stead.

But as far as negotiations went, talks seemed to bear little fruit. Both sides seemed entrenched in their respective hard-line positions, even as the Clinton administration warned of dire backlogs and consequences of a protracted shutdown.

On day two of the shutdown, Clinton threatened to veto Republican approved short-term spending bills that he said cut too deeply and tied his hands on the budget. He pledged to hold firm "even if it's 90 days, 120 days or 180 days."

Republicans, meanwhile, pushed for the White House to concede on a measure that would impose a seven-year roadmap to a balanced budget.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who is at the center of today's shutdown standoff, made the case for the GOP's hard-line position in 1995 when he served as House Republican Conference chairman.

"A balanced budget is at the core of who we are as Republican members of Congress. . . . It's a question of resolve and our resolve is strong as steel," he said, according to the Washington Post.

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But as the days passed, the shutdown began to take a political toll.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll showed nearly half of the country blamed congressional Republicans for the shutdown, compared with only 34 percent who blamed Clinton.

And although a whopping 88 percent said they weren't inconvenienced by the shutdown, most, 78 percent, said it was a bad thing.

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Warning of the effects of long backlogs in processing government applications at various agencies, Clinton began slowly ordering federal employees back to work.

"If the government shutdown continues to prevent action to accept applications for Medicare, Social Security and veterans' benefits made by seniors and veterans, this backlog would be so great that service to these citizens would not return to normal for months to come," Clinton said.

But even with workers returning to work, agencies predicted that transactions with the federal government would continue to function slowly for days or weeks.

Bracing for the worst, a protracted shutdown that could last 90 days or more, Republican lawmakers in Congress prepared to start funding the government piece by piece beginning with some of the most politically sensitive functions: Social Security, Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health.

But they never got their chance.

After four days, a deal was struck between Clinton and congressional leaders, allowing the government to come back online, and Congress set about to the task of undoing the damage from a four-day shutdown.

Government employees were owed pay for work they never did, and those same employees faced piles of work that went undone for much of the week.

Weeks later, Congress and the White House careened down the path to a second shutdown, this time lasting for another 24 days.

In the end, according to an Office of Management and Budget estimate from 1996, the total bill for the loss of productivity and other costs associated with the shutdown was estimated to be $1.4 billion.

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