ABC-6 Reporter Mark Curtis: “The Sunday Political Brunch” September 22, 2013

by ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis

(Providence, Rhode Island) – The U.S. government may shut showdown on October 1st. That hasn't happened in 17 years. I'll leave it to my readers to debate the pros and cons of the issues at stake, including the federal debt ceiling, and the funding for “Obama Care.” I was a reporter living and working inside the beltway during the last government shutdowns, so I will share my thoughts and analysis from that perspective: 

“The History” – The U.S. government closed from November 14 to November 19, 1995. When it reopened the truce did not last long. The government shutdown again from December 16, 1995 through January 6, 1996. Having been a reporter in Washington, DC at the time, it was surreal. You could have fired a cannonball through the capital city and not hit a soul. It was a ghost town. The Metro rail system was largely empty. I remember interviewing a little boy out side the Smithsonian museums which suddenly closed and his birthday visit canceled. It was weird seeing such a bustling city at a standstill. 

“Be Careful What You Wish For” – The last time the government shutdown, Republicans controlled the House and the Senate. Democrat Bill Clinton was President. This time the stakes are different. Back then Bill Clinton was gearing up to run for a second term; this time Barack Obama is already in his second term, approaching lame-duck status. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate back then; the GOP only controls the House this time, but has a realistic shot at winning control of the Senate next year. Shutting down the government is a high-staked political gamble. 

“Political Fallout” – The government shutdowns of 1995-96 did little to help Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole. Dole was a deal maker and power broker in Washington, DC, not a confrontational type like then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Yet, Dole was dragged into the shutdowns as an unwitting participant. He lost the election to Bill Clinton in November by a decisive margin. Republicans also lost 8 seats in the U.S. House, but maintained a solid majority. The GOP actually gained two seats in the U.S. Senate. So a shutdown times has political risks – and potential benefits – for both parties. 

“The Dynamics of Washington” – There are 535 Members of Congress. There is only one President. While much of the press coverage (and public opinion) blamed Republicans in 1995-96, in truth the Democratic White House was an equal partner in the shutdown. So, why did Congress get blamed? Well, it's the dynamic of the two institutions. Congress always looks like chaos, and appears unruly. A President – sitting in the Oval Office alone – looks under siege; but also looks more sympathetic and dignified, compared the chaos down the street. Ronald Reagan knew this better than anyone, and was a master at leveraging it in shaping public to his own advantage. While President Obama's approval rating hovers near a dismal 40 percent, his only solace is in knowing that the Congressional approval rating is only about 20 percent. 

“In the Heartland” – As a practical matter, much of life goes on as normal during a government shutdown, because only non-essentials services are cut. So the mail gets delivered and trains and planes run on time. The military and law enforcement protect us as they normally do. But, the national park system closes, and some federal court proceedings are delayed. Unseen items such as the public affairs duties of the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies cease as well. Unless you are like the little boy I mentioned above, locked out of the Smithsonian, most people's lives are unaffected. But from a public relations standpoint, the shutdowns look political and petty and does a lot reduce the public perception of politicians. Most of the impact is felt inside the Beltway, and most Americans don't live anywhere near there.  

“What are the Odds? – When I interviewed U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Friday, he put the odds of a shutdown at 50 percent. Knowing full well, the political implications I mentioned above, Whitehouse said, “You got to believe that the sober and responsible leaders of the Republican Party don't want to be responsible for this, and that they will find a way.” Whitehouse may have a point – Republican passed their budget measure in the House, but don't have a shot on the Democratic controlled Senate. Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping the public has grown weary of the mounting, staggering national debt. “It's too much and we have to strategize the way that we spend money now. We can't continually spend money, the way that the government is. We have to spend money, like we do in our own home,” said Republican State Rep. Doreen Costa. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts. Click the comment button at

© 2013, Mark Curtis Media, LLC. 

Photo courtesy: The National Journal