Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Government shutdown threat is getting very old, very fast

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Mon September 30, 2013
A Park Service police officer stands guard in front of the Lincoln Memorial during a partial shutdown of the federal government in November 1995. Many government services and agencies were closed at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996 as President Bill Clinton battled a Republican-led Congress over spending levels. A Park Service police officer stands guard in front of the Lincoln Memorial during a partial shutdown of the federal government in November 1995. Many government services and agencies were closed at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996 as President Bill Clinton battled a Republican-led Congress over spending levels.
HIDE CAPTION
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
The last government shutdown
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Budget battles reoccur regularly, and each time seems worse
  • Republicans have used the weapon of a shutdown to cripple Democratic presidents, he says
  • Zelizer: When a tactic such as threatening to veto debt limit increase is used, it becomes the new normal
  • He says some in GOP are outraged, and now is a good time to talk about reforming budget process

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The budget battles continue to rage. Every time the Congress and the president reach another resolution over taxes and spending -- the new fiscal cliff -- another round of fighting begins.

At best, the government manages to operate based on continuing resolutions, temporary stopgap measures that indicate the budget process is dysfunctional. At worst, the federal government shuts down -- as it might this week -- or Congress will fail to raise the debt ceiling in a few more weeks. The impact of these fights could be horrendous for the economy.

Few dispute that our budget process is broken. But the nation is so buried in the weeds, trying to scramble out of each specific budget battle, that there is hardly time to step back and understand what dynamics are driving this process.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Partisan strategy is one of the main culprits. Polarization has made almost every issue more contentious on Capitol Hill. But in recent years, Republicans in particular have taken the initiative to use the budget as a way to handcuff Democratic presidents.

The strategy has deep roots. In 1966 and 1967, conservative Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans focused attention on the rising deficits to force President Lyndon Johnson to accept deep spending cuts and bring his opportunities for enacting more legislation to an end.

In 1995 and 1996, Republicans shut down the federal government with their push for spending cuts. Even after the backlash helped President Bill Clinton regain his political standing, which had plummeted after the 1994 election, the GOP continued to insist on spending cuts through the remainder of Clinton's term, leaving him little opportunity to do much more than to try and curtail their demands.

Since 2010, a growing number of Republicans have been willing to use aggressive techniques to force President Barack Obama's hand on this issue. They have demonstrated that they would be fine with shutting down the government and they have threatened to not raise the debt ceiling -- which would send the country into default.

Peter King: Ted Cruz 'is a fraud'
The House GOP's Shutdown Strategy
No game plan to avoid a shutdown

To be sure there have been moments when Democrats have challenged Republican presidents as well. The difference is they have usually done so symbolically to make a statement about Republican policies, whereas the new generation of Republicans appears willing to follow through on the threat.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, New York Republican Peter King lambasted his colleagues, calling Sen. Ted Cruz's recent tactics, "a form of governmental terrorism."

Another reason the budgeting process is becoming ever more brutal is because, historically, once legislators break the barrier of using a certain tactic, the practice can become normalized.

The best example is the filibuster. There was a time when members of the Senate were reluctant to use the filibuster frequently. They reserved it for high-profile issues, like civil rights, believing that ordinarily a majority should be sufficient to pass legislation.

But since the 1970s, the filibuster has become a routine weapon in partisan combat. Senators have been willing to threaten or use the filibuster more frequently, and to do so on rather mundane issues. The result has been that the Senate became a chamber where a supermajority is required on most issues.

We're seeing a similar dynamic with the budget. Whereas threatening a government shutdown was once seen as a highly dramatic act, in the current environment there are many legislators who seem to view it as a legitimate part of congressional debate.

While there was a time when legislators warned that they would not vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling only when they knew that Congress was going to raise the debt ceiling, now more legislators are open to following through on the threat that the debt limit increase won't pass. Each time that they do it, the threat becomes more familiar, and more accepted by some.

Finally, the budget wars are fueled by the 24-hour news media, with outlets on cable television and the Internet that are constantly in search of dramatic stories to win attention. The budget war offers great fodder. The possibility of a fiscal cliff offers political junkies a bit of the kind of thrill that "Breaking Bad" fans have felt every time Walter White extricates himself from another bind.

As a result, legislators such as Cruz, who gained considerable attention over the past few weeks for his dramatic stand against Obamacare, are making a name for themselves and staying in the headlines. The budget process might not be good for the nation, but it is certainly a great way for a politician to receive attention.

At some point there will be pressure to reform the process. The latest round of budget battles led a larger number of Republicans, like Sen. John McCain, to be openly critical of their colleagues and call for a very different approach. As Representative King, an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, explained, "I still think we should try to repeal the bill. But you repeal it the same way you passed it. You get bills through both houses of Congress, and you get the president to sign it."

Budget reform is possible. For instance, there has been some discussion about the possibility of repealing the need for a congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling.

There have been several moments in U.S. history, such as in 1921 and 1974, when Congress overhauled the entire budget process. It might be time to start that debate again.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT