Skip to main content

Worst shutdown in modern U.S. history

By Ellen Fitzpatrick and Theda Skocpol, Special to CNN
October 3, 2013 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Furloughed federal workers protest the shutdown as House Republicans hold a news conference on Wednesday.
Furloughed federal workers protest the shutdown as House Republicans hold a news conference on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Never in modern U.S. history has a political minority tried to undo a law with such radicalism
  • Writers: ACA won approval of Congress, Supreme Court and president who won reelection
  • They say ACA was devised by conservatives and tested by Romney, and is not radical
  • Writers: GOP highjacked by minority who justify extremism with high-minded rhetoric

Editor's note: Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor of modern American history at the University of New Hampshire. Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, and director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

(CNN) -- The federal government shutdown is a virtually unprecedented move by a political minority committed to rolling back one of the most significant legislative achievements in recent American history. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was passed by two houses of Congress after 14 months of debate. Opponents then challenged the law's constitutionality and lost that battle in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Less than five months later, American voters re-elected by a 5 million-vote majority margin a president who stood foursquare behind the Affordable Care Act. In so doing, the electorate rejected a GOP presidential candidate who promised its repeal.

Ellen Fitzpatrick
Ellen Fitzpatrick
Theda Skocpol
Theda Skocpol

Apparently the democratic processes by which Americans make choices and govern themselves are not acceptable to extremists in the House of Representatives who seek to halt government or have their way. They would have Americans see their actions as a patriotic and high-minded defense of liberty. As the shutdown loomed, several GOP congressmen and analysts took to the airwaves to trivialize the significance of the House vote.

Some cited previous episodes to suggest that closing the federal government is a normal byproduct of the American people having "a very deep disagreement about the future of our country." Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican and member of the House Budget Committee, took a different tack and in so doing revealed what was really under way. Duffy insisted that President Obama was guilty of recalcitrance in the face of reasonable House Republicans who simply sought a workable compromise.

"We have moved over the last week," Duffy insisted in an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan. "We first had a defund Obamacare bill. We then moved to a delay Obamacare bill. And tonight ... we said 'let's delay the individual mandate. '"

Each step, in fact, had been an effort to shatter what the democratic process had painstakingly achieved.

Such rhetorical sleights of hand should not obscure the very radical departure the closure of most of the federal government represents. Some members of the House of Representatives apparently believe their steadfast opposition to the Affordable Care law justifies the use of coercive threats: to defund U.S. government and harm the economy.

Carney: GOP out to get 'political scalp'
GOP congressman: Obama will negotiate
House Majority Leader on the shutdown
Obama: GOP holding economy hostage

In seeking to trump a lawful vote of both houses of Congress, a Supreme Court ruling and a reaffirming national presidential election, they tread on extremist ground. Their hubris is radical and nothing in modern American history provides a fair counterpart.

To be sure, each major expansion of the U.S. federal government's role in ensuring Social Security, access to health care, and equal civil rights has been accompanied by intense ideological and partisan conflicts. But when milestone laws have survived the gantlet of Congress, been affirmed in a presidential signing ceremony, and withstood Supreme Court review, the losing party or faction has generally settled for taking arguments about repeal or revisions to the voters.

They have also, to be sure, continued efforts to chip away at enforcement or funding through normal legislative steps. Republicans pushed back at parts of the Social Security Act of 1935 for more than 15 years, for example, but they never threatened to close down the entire federal government unless Democrats agreed to undo their own crowning New Deal legislative achievement.

Republicans also continued to try to amend the Wagner Labor Relations Act until their partial success in the Taft-Hartley legislation of 1947; but the Wagner Act itself was never a subject of extortive efforts to defund the whole government.

Since 1976, policy fights have at times shut down the federal government. Congressional disputes over federal funding of abortion led to several funding gaps during the Carter administration. Clashes over government spending, program cuts and other policy issues, including funding of the Nicaraguan Contras, led to similar results in the Reagan administration. In December 1995, the Clinton administration experienced the longest shutdown in modern American history when House Republicans attempted to extract a balanced budget from the president -- and failed as public opinion turned against the GOP.

But in none of these episodes did a minority attempt to undo a major law by the sorts of threats against democratic decisions we see today.

Some might argue that the actions of Republican House members are justified by the sweeping changes Affordable Care promises to bring. This law does seek to fulfill a century-long dream of reformers to ensure access to affordable health insurance to virtually all U.S. citizens. But the core provisions are far from radical.

Devised by the conservative Heritage Foundation and first tested in Massachusetts under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, the central tenets of Affordable Care respect and build upon private market mechanisms and long-established public programs like Medicaid for the poor and disabled.

No, the extremism of the present moment should not be understood as a fair response to a governmental expansion some consider too vast. Unprecedented efforts to try to repeal or gut a major law by threatening the nation's government and economy are a symptom of a political party that has allowed a faction to pull it far away from fundamental democratic values. We can only hope that saner heads and hearts will soon prevail.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT