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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT