POLITICS: Government shutdowns – Who dreamed up this crazy idea?

Jimmy Carter (above) and his Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti (right), authors of the modern government shutdown.

In all the drama and commotion last week over the threatened shutdown of the US government, avoided literally at the last minute by a budget compromise between President Obama and House Republicans, has anyone noticed how frankly ridiculous this whole system has become?  How can it be that here in the USA, we have a rule that demands literally a shut-down of the entire Federal government, as self-defeating an outcome as anyone can imagine,  over a routine technical accounting glitch?

Benjamin Civiletti, Carter’s AG in 1980.

Who thought up this crazy idea?  Certainly not George Washington nor James Madison.  During the first 194 years of the American Republic, from 1787 to 1981, government shutdowns NEVER HAPPENED.  Our country survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II, all without anyone ever once shutting down the government.  

And no, it’s not that we’ve never had accounting snafus in Washington before 1980.  But up until that year, no President or Attorney General ever took the crazy position that a gap between agency funding bills — that is, the expiring of one coming a few hours or days before final enactment of the next — amounted to a doomsday machine for politicians to hurl around Capitol Hill causing the government to lock its doors.

Then came Jimmy Carter and his then-Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti.

In April 1980, faced with a possible funding gap for one small agency, the US Federal Trade Commission, President Carter asked Civiletti what the law required.  No President had ever raised this question before in such a formal way.  Civiletti, in response, issued a legal opinion giving his reading of the Federal Antideficiency Act (31 USC 1341 and 1342) — a law on the books since 1870.  According to Civiletti, this ancient law required that “during periods of ‘lapsed appropriations,’ no funds may be expended except as necessary to bring about the orderly termination of an agency’s function” — that is, a shutdown, with a few exceptions for emergencies.  (see 43 U.S. Opinions of Attorney General, 224 (1980) and 293 (1981).)  

Many people at the time disagreed with Civiletti.   Funding gaps — mostly small ones affecting a single department or two — had occurred at least seven times between 1950 and 1980, with none resulting in a shutdown.  And nobody had complained about it.  In four of those cases, Congress itself simply shrugged and voted to ratify the work done by the government employees and made sure they got paid.  When a funding gap had threatened the US General Accounting Office in 1979,  the Comptroller General, Elmer Staats (who had been in the job for 15 years) formally ruled that no shutdown was needed since Congress, in enacting the 1870 statute, never intended that federal agencies be closed.  Instead, both GAO and OMB had instructed agencies to limit new contracts or financial commitments during these periods — but keep the doors open. 

In other words, there was nothing inevitable or necessary about government shutdowns.  It was simply one lawyer’s opinion.  Still, with Civiletti’s opinion now set, the doomsday device began to work:

  • 1981: a half-day shutdown.  President Reagan vetoed a continuing resolution and sent 400,000 Federal employees home one day around lunchtime, then signed a new version a few hours later allowing them back the next morning. 
  • 1984: a one-day shutdown.  500,000 federal workers were sent home until an emergency spending bill was approved the next day.
  • 1990: a weekend shutdown.  The funding gap came during that year’s three-day Columbus Day weekend and was settled before doors opened on Tuesday morning.  
  • 1995-1996, two back-to-back shutdowns stemming from a disagreement President Clinton and House Republicans over funding for Medicare, education, and public health.   First, some 800,000 employees were sent home between November 14 to 19 after President Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution, and then, a few weeks later, 284,000 workers were sent home again, this time for three weeks, as some 425,000 employees deemed “essential” had to work those weeks on non-pay status.

Today, in 2011, we seem to take it for granted that the doomsday machine is enshrined in law, principle, or constitution.   If anything, the threat has expanded in recent years as Congress does a worse and worse job of passing its normal spending bills on time.  Today, in fact, many people view the threat of government shutdowns as a useful “action-forcing mechanism” that compels Washington to face difficult choices — as with the budget cuts last week.  

Still, do we really need political carnivals like last week’s cliff-hanger ?  Don’t they only make the country look weak and silly to the world?  

Maybe it’s time to deep-six the 1980 Civiletti opinions and restore sanity to the system.  How hard can it be to turn off the doomsday machine?

The next presidential one-termer: Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter answering questions as president.  

[Clirk here for (a) part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft and (b) part II, on the ninth one-termer, Herbert Hoover.]

Remember all the good feelings of optiimism and relief in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president of the USA.  (You guys not born yet, trust me on this.)   

After the house-of-horrors presidency of “Tricky Dick” Richard M. Nixon – his enemies list, spying on his own staff, wiretaps of news reporters, his “plumbers unit,” IRS audits of political enemies, plus Vietnam, the Cambodia invasion, the shootings at Kent State, and all the lying and deceit of Watergate that finally did him in (I won’t pretend to be neutral about RMN) — after all that, Jimmy Carter seemed a breath of fresh air, even after the interlude of Gerald Ford’s relatively calm brief presidency.  

Honest Jimmy, he came across as down-home and normal, truthful, grounded, at ease with his wife and cute little daughter, a peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and Navy submariner, willing to get out of his car and walk on his own two feet during his inaugural parade.  Carter was an “outsider” –a one-term governor from Plains, Georgia, with no taint of Washington experience.  He promised to deliver “a government as good and honest and decent and compassionate … as its people.”  And he said “I will never lie to you.”

Sound slightly arrogant?  Slightly smug?  Like an accident waiting to happen?  By 1980,barely three years later, Carter’s popularity had plummeted, his poll numbers at around 20 percent — close to Richard Nixon’s own lowest point during Watergate.  

[Full disclosure: At the time, in the late 1970s, I was a young staff lawyer for Republican Senator Chuck Percy (R-Ill.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee — scene of much Carter-era action — so I had a nice ring-side seat.]

To his credit, Carter compiled a pretty nice legislative record.  He won major deregulations of the airlines, trucking, and natural gas prices, created the Energy and Education Departments, took major energy conservation steps and pushed through the Alaska Lands Act and bans on ocean dumping and strip mining.  He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, and won a treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama (still a sore point with conservatives).  

This was all good.  Put it on the plus side of the ledger.  Now for the rest ….

So what was the accident waiting to happen? 

Almost from the start, things under Carter seemed chaotic, out-of control.  In his first year as president, Carter’s team stumbled into a first-rate scandal that forced the resignation of Carter’s long-time crony and OMB Director, Bert Lance.  After that, a veritable cascade of toubless followed —   

  • First, the economy sank into a swamp of high inflation, high interest rates, sagging markets, and low growth — a new phenomenon called Carter “stagflation.”  Rubbing sand in the wound were repeated hikes in the price of oil (gasoline) dictated by the OPEC cartel of Arab countries.  Then, in late 1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, cornered the silver market, driving prices of silver and gold to historic highs before crashing in early 1980.  No, the economic mess wasn’t all Carter’s fault.  And to his credit, his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker had plans to fix it.  But there’s more;
  • Then, as things kept going wrong, Carter decided to closet himself for a week-long, high-profile secret enclave at Camp David after which he (a) first conducted a purge of his staff, sacking five cabinet secretaries, and (b) then followed it with a national televised speech in which he decried the country’s “crisis of the spirit” – known to posterity as the “malaise” speech; 
  • Then, in late 1979, militants in Iran seized the US embassy there and held 52 American hostages for what would be 444 days.  Carter ordered a military rescue (causing his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign in protest) which failed because of a helicopter crash that, costing the lives of eight servicemen;
  • Then came the late-1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, causing Carter to (a) cancel US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (pissing off sports fans all across America) and (b)  embargo grain shipments to Russia (causing US grain prices to tank, pissing off farmers all across America); 

  • Then, finally, just when he needed friends the most, came a revolt from within his own Democratic Party as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) decided to challenge Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination.  Carter beat him (he was, after all, an incumbent president), but only after an ugly fight.

By 1980 when the ran for re-eleciton, Jimmy Carter seemed reduced to one last voter appeal:  That as bad as things might be under his own leadership, his opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, was worse — too inexperienced, too right wing, too extreme.  Voters didn’t buy it.  When Reagan and Carter debated face to face, Reagan came across as calm and reasonable.  He won by a landslide.

(Carter managed to bungle even the debates.  When third-party candidate John Anderson asked to participate, Reagan agreed and Carter refused.  The debate when ahead with just Reagan and Anderson, and Carter’s glaring absence make him again look petty and insecure.)

Lesson for Obama:

How to avoid being like Jimmy Carter?  Obama, let’s start with this:  Please do not start thinking that you are smarter than everyone else.  The minute you do, you’re lost. 

Here was Carter’s trap:  Being an “outsider” and painting yourself as “better than” Washington might make you popular in the short run, even win an election or two.  But those same Washington “insiders” – most just as honest, decent, and civic-minded as you — are the very people whose help you need to accomplish your goals, and whose friendship you need when things get tough.   Living in a White House cacoon surrounded by old friends from back home does little good when issues get complicated.

Yes, partisanship today is out of conttrol.  But the golden rule of Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunket from 1905 still holds today::  “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….”

Jimmy Carter is celebrated today as an admirable former President.  Since leaving the White House, he and his Carter Center have helped sooth dozens of world crises, wining him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. This, of course, very nice.  But for now,  the key fact about Carter is this: 1980 Electoral Votes- Ronald Reagan, 489; Carter, 49. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 22.)

Next up, the final one-term president: George H. W. Bush.

A good moment to recall Egypt’s President Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat, President of Egypt (1970-1981)

 As Egypt, the oldest, largest (79 million people), and arguably most important country in the Middle East, navigates its way through a dangerous, exhilarating week of protest against its 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, and we in the West ponder nervously what might come should Mubarak go, this is a useful time to remember Anwar el Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat was one of the original circle of army officers that toppled the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk in 1952, establishing modern Egypt and ending British dominance in the country.  He became Egypt’s third president on the death of his mentor, Egypt’s second president, Abdel Gamal Nasser, in 1970.

A graduate of Egypt’s Royal Military Academy, Sadat is remembered in the West primarily for three events that highlighted his term:

  • War with Israel:   On October 6 1973, he ordered Egypt’s army to launch a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  Sadat’s army penetrated Israel’s Bar Lev line, crossed the Suez Canal, and penetrated 15 kilometers into the Sinai Peninsula before Israel could launch a counter-strike, itself crossing the Suez to encircle parts of the Egyptian Army.  The result was stalemate, viewed in Egypt as victory, restoring national honor after its defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. 

  • Peace with Israel:  Sadat then made peace.  Late in 1977, he dramatically offered personally to visit Jerusalem to jump-start talks.  The result was the 1978 Camp David Accords, negotiated with Israel’s Menachem Begin with help from US President Jimmy Carter.  Egypt became the first front-line Arab state to sign a treaty with Israel, which has held for over 30 years.  Sadat himself won the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Begin) for his effort, but was vilified in much of the Arab world and Egypt itself was temporarily expelled from the Arab League;

    Assassination of President Sadat, 1981.
  • Death by Assassination:  Finally, in September 1981, Sadat, warned about growing criticism and conspiracy threats, ordered a crackdown on political enemies. His police rounded up some 1,500 critics: Islamists, Christian clerics, and academics and intellectuals of every stripe.  The next month, on September 6, as Sadat sat reviewing a military parade, a small band of dissident officers attacked with grenades and gunfire, killing Sadat and eleven others.  Two of the assassins were killed on the spot, and over 300 Islamic radicals were indicted to stand trial, including future al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman el-Zawahiri.

It is now thirty years since these events, and during that entire time Egypt has had just one ruler, President Hosni Mubarak.  Uner Mubarak, Egypt has remained stable politically (and cooperative with the US on key foreign policy initiatives) but at the cost of economic stagnation and political repression.  The resulting wide anger against him is visible in the huge protests this week.  All the world wonders – If Mubarak falls, what will follow?

This brings me back to Anwar El Sadat.  Sadat was controversial, loved and hated, and certainly had flaws by any view.  Still, as a leader, be carried himself with dignity,  moderation, and competence.  At home, he instituted pluralist politics and economic reforms, and had the backbone to take bold stands. He expelled Soviet military advisers in order to make his army more independent, then proved its worth in the Yom Kippur War.   Globally, he reached out to all sides, East and West, making his country a top payer on the world stage.

The fact is, over the centuries, Egypt, with its ancient culture, diverse population, and deep-rooted institutions, has produced many capable leaders, and today’s Egyptian army — by all accounts trusted by the people — appears an incubator of new talent.  Hopefully, in days and weeks to come, Egypt will struggle through its current turmoil and emerge a stronger, happier, freer place.  Rather than fear the likely change, we in the West can take confidence that this is the same country that elevated to its top position someone of the caliber of Anwar El Sadat.  Hopefully, there are others waiting in the wings.

Gasp! Where are the leaders?

My chief reaction to Hillary Clinton’s stunning wins in Texas and Ohio, which have now extended her epic race with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination for at least six more weeks (not unlike the groundhog seeing his shadow) until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, was this: Fear.

Will so much more of this increasingly ugly campaign help Democrats ultimately defeat John McCain in November to re-take the White House? Or is this turn of events now setting up Democrats to lose all the marbles once again in what otherwise should be a sure-win year?

No, I am not suggesting that Clintin should drop out. She has won her right to compete fair and square by her clean primary wins last week. That’s not the point. The issue is quality.

No, Barack Obama does not deserve a free ride to the nomination. He has a duty to answer questions about the Tony Rezko trial, his views on NAFTA and Israel, his recent staff gaffes, and all the rest — just as Hillary Clinton has a duty to disclosure her tax returns, funding sources for the Clintin library, presidential papers, and explain the basis of her 3 am phone calls. Yes, a tough campaign can make them both tougher fighters in the end, and help clear the air on thorny issues. And yes, this ongoing contest has worked wonderfully so far to build interest, enthusiasm, and turnout.

But all these positives are fragile. And lately, the trend is ominous. We Democrats have a history of bloodying ourselves in internal battles producing weakened, losing candidates. Think Jimmy Carter 1980 or Hubert Humphrey 1968 (and for the historians in the room, Al Smith 1928, James Cox 1920, or even Stephen Douglas 1860).

What bothers me about the Hillary Clinton campaign today is that it seeems to smell blood and has chosen to base its strategy on simply tearing down its opponent. Turning loose dogs of war is always brings risks of the unknown. (See Iraq.) The more she attacks, the more Obama will need to attack back. And if she loses the contest and Obama becomes her collateral damage, losing to McCain in November, this seems to bother her circle less than losing the nomination itself.

And that galls the hell out of me. Because priority number one in 2008 is to win back the White House. Otherwise, this whole terrific primary contest has all been one big banal waste of time.

So now is the time for the Democratic leaders — Al Gore, Nancy Polosi, Joe Biden, so on — to act like leaders. They should step in and restore order. I’d like to see them call a big summit meeting, bring Clinton and Obama together, make them sit side by side, and read them the Riot Act. The message should be simple: Campaign your hearts out, but keep this civil. Strike a deal: Whoever has the most elected delegates once the primaries are over (with whatever special arrangement is made for Florida and Michigan) should be deemed the winner, and the loser should promise to concede then and there.

The Party should refuse to support either one of them who conducts himself or herself in a way to undermine a victory in November.

Personally, I happen to like both of our semi-finalists and think either one would make a terrific candidate. Maybe I’m just over-reacting, being in a grumpy mood from having a skin cancer removed this week. (How about that. I buried the lead. Don’t worry, by the way. It went fine.)

In any event, that’s my rant for this pretty Sunday morning here in Washington. Tonight I fly to Minneapolis (11 degrees and snow) to visit a very likeable client in the very likeable Midwest.

Hope things are well. I’m off for more coffee. –KenA