In 1995 and 1996 there were two government shutdowns.
Tensions were high.
Harsh words were used on both sides.
And yet common sense also existed and conversations continued.
Ultimately President Clinton and the Republicans in Congress reached agreements which led to cuts in spending, welfare reform, the first tax cuts in 16 years, and the only four consecutive balanced budgets in our lifetime.
The tension today is similar, but in some ways there are more differences. Back in 1995-96, there was the understanding that government shutdowns were an unpleasant but integral part of the legislative-executive power struggle. That power struggle is built into the American Constitution. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect freedom by separating powers so every branch had to negotiate with the others. They believed the legislative branch was closest to the people and in peacetime the most important branch. That is why the Constitution devotes Article One to the Congress.
They knew a powerful executive was needed to run the government and to serve as Commander in Chief in wartime. (These were men who had just fought an eight-year-long war with Great Britain and before that some of them had been in the seven-year-long French and Indian War.)
Finally, they wanted a Judiciary Branch to supervise the laws. They deeply distrusted the British judges who they saw as agents of the government and so they made the Judiciary Branch the third article. In the Federalist Papers they assured Americans that the judges would be the weakest of the three branches.
Because power is split, there are moments when the different branches cannot reach agreement. In those moments, the tension builds. Government shutdowns are an expression of those differences.
Back in 1995, we were used to shutdowns as part of the negotiating process. Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill had twelve shutdowns during his Speakership. Not so today, as seen both in the news media and in the hysteria of President Obama and the Democrats. Until this week, there had been seventeen years without a legislative-executive confrontation that led to a shutdown.
That period is now over.
There are very deep and profound differences between the House Republicans, who won the 2010 election opposing Obamacare, and President Obama, for whom this is his greatest legacy. The President won in 2012. What he and his allies refuse to acknowledge is that the House Republicans also won in 2012. In the American system when both sides win there has to be a negotiation. Neither side can demand surrender from the other.
President Bill Clinton understood this requirement of negotiation, communication and compromise. There is no evidence President Obama believes he is required to negotiate, communicate, or compromise with a Congress which opposes him. In fact, there is a lot of evidence he believes he is superior to the “People’s House.”
If the president begins a phone call with the words “I will not negotiate,” as President Obama did last Friday with Speaker Boehner, it is pretty hard to see how they can find a common ground. That was not President Clinton’s style at all.
House Republicans have to be prepared to compromise but so must President Obama and his Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Faced with a president who refuses to negotiate, the House Republicans have to stand firm. A collapse of the House Republicans would teach President Obama that he can get away with virtually anything he wants. It would lead to a frightening three years and ultimately an even bigger crisis.
There is a path to a negotiated agreement but it requires both sides to negotiate. In 1995-96, both sides knew they were subordinate to the Constitution and they had to reach an agreement. It is not clear that this is true today.
Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a new host of CNN’s Crossfire. He is the author of many historical novels, including his latest, Victory at Yorktown. The views expressed are solely his own.