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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 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 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 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 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 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 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 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 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
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 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
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 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
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.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT