Boosted approval ratings and back pay: Lessons learned from past shutdowns
April 8th, 2011
09:32 PM ET

Boosted approval ratings and back pay: Lessons learned from past shutdowns

There's no question that the country can make it through a government shutdown. We've done it before - 17 times since 1977, reports. What have we learned from previous shutdowns?

The last two shutdowns occurred on President Bill Clinton's watch, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republicans controlling the Senate clashed with the president over the federal budget.

Most political strategists agree that the Clinton-era shutdowns politically benefited the sitting president, who was able to paint Republicans as obstructionist. According to Gallup, his handling of the shutdown boosted his popularity.

"In the wake of the government shutdown in early 1996, Clinton's approval rating moved permanently above the 50% level, and never fell below 52% after that," Gallup reported in 2001, upon his exit from office.

The same warnings are being echoed by prominent Republicans such as Karl Rove. In his weekly polling memo, the former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush cautioned that a shutdown could boost President Barack Obama's approval ratings, citing the Clinton effect.

"The shutdowns helped improve Clinton's political standing, boosting both his approval rating and perceptions of him as a strong leader," Rove wrote. "At the time, poll watchers noted that, 'the only time Clinton's ratings have improved substantially the past year as a result of his actions has been when he adopted a strategy of confrontation.' "

There are other parallels. Like today, the government in 1995 had not settled on a spending measure that would cover the whole fiscal year. Republicans this year were pushing for a deal that would cut spending by $61 billion, but Democrats have wanted only a fraction of that.

Even the rhetoric sounds familiar, said CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who covered the Clinton-era budget showdowns.

Blitzer said that at the time, Gingrich accused the president of being more interested in politics and campaigning, accusations that current House Speaker John Boehner has made against Obama.

Much of the public's outrage over the potential shutdown has focused on loss of pay and benefits for members of the military and their families. Thousands of troops and their families are worried that if the government shuts at midnight, they would receive half a check next week and not see another paycheck until May 1 - if the government shutdown is resolved by then.

Troops got paid in November 1995 because the first shutdown lasted only six days. It also came at a specific time of the month and the shutdown was resolved in time for the next paycheck to be issued in full, officials said.

A senior defense official told CNN that as long as an agreement is reached by Tuesday, the Pentagon could possibly work quickly enough to cut troops a full check on the next pay date, April 15. If the shutdown lasts past Tuesday, the Pentagon is making plans to have an emergency payday and troops may not have to wait until May 1, the senior defense official said.

Past experience also provides some hope. The second, longer shutdown in December 1995 would have meant troops were not paid, but Congress passed an appropriation for defense funding in advance of the second shutdown.

Read more: Government shutdown FAQS

Like then, there's concern for the roughly 800,000 federal employees who stand to be furloughed and lose income. In every previous government shutdown, Congress has authorized back pay for days they didn't work. Of course, there's no guarantee that will happen again. Plus, there may be a double whammy: workers will get their paychecks, but the work they normally do will have piled up in the meantime. When workers return, agencies might have to pay overtime just to catch up on all the work that wasn't done during the shutdown.

As for services that stand to be halted, during the Clinton-era shutdowns, 200,000 passport applications went unprocessed and toxic waste cleanup work at 609 sites stopped. The National Institutes of Health stopped accepting new clinical research patients and services for veterans, including health care, were curtailed. Work on bankruptcy cases could slow. In the last shutdown, more than 3,500 cases were delayed.

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Filed under: Budget
soundoff (71 Responses)
  1. Nonesense

    The government needs to be careful. People easily forget about those who you do not need in the present and about the past, but if there is a war against a communist or other country, they are going come back with their tails between their legs asking from the men and women that defend our way of life. Those politicians in Washington need to make less idiotic decisions and start using common sense.

    April 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Deal With It

    @We love shutdown – I have to agree with you on the corporate contractors and overfunded projects. Big corporate contractors are lining their pockets with "war money" and playing to their own political agendas, while the rest of the government goes broke. The government always has to overpay for the inferior product or the lowest bidder. It's no wonder we've been at war for 10 years and have barely made any headway; the equipment we're given is sub-par compared to what we could've had.

    In regards to new cars, px discounts, and free travel expenses, your ignorance shines through. You must think that military members are a tax-exempt club full of "high-life jet setters." Have you ever served in the US military? We pay taxes just like everyone else. There are no steep discounts at the PX, we pay the same price as if we were shopping at Wal-Mart, if not more. Any discounts that we are afforded are greatly offset by surcharges. Additionally, the only free travel expenses that we earn, are deployments to foreign lands, which I can assure you is no vacation.

    April 8, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dim Mak

    @Lyn: There is Selfridge Air National Guard base in Mi which houses many different branches of the military including the Marines of which my brother is a member. Whenever the president stops here he lands and leaves from that base. I don't know if there are any more though, but i heard there is.

    April 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Deal With It

    I remember years ago, there was also KI Sawyer AFB (spelling?). If I'm not mistaken, it was in the U.P.

    April 8, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tim

    @ Lyn - who rambled on and on about details she knew NOTHING about first-hand...

    You accused people who you don't of lying about what they don't have. And exactly where did you get your figures? You assume that you know a lot simply because you are the spouse of a service member. You may be the spouse of a service member, but that doesn't mean you know it all, so please stop whining and criticizing others. Chances are, had you been interviewed, you would have laid on the drama extra thick. Oh wait, you already did that in your juvenile, ill-informed tirade.

    April 9, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
  6. bretdeployed

    seriously im over here in the sandbox and i dont get a lot of time for tv or internet but this is ridiculous I got area commanders telling us hey you might get half pay or no pay check, but we keep on with the mission...SERIOUSLY? Are they Mad? Enlistments a contract....I do my part the Fed does theyres thats it! period. If the Fed cant pay me for volunteering to do this then how can they expect us to go on? I dont care what the hell they are fighting over on the hill PAY US! or find another fighting force

    April 9, 2011 at 3:11 am | Report abuse |
  7. richp

    The main lesson they learned is target the most vulnerable and the military.

    April 9, 2011 at 6:32 am | Report abuse |
  8. davidtherealist

    The reason the republicans are doing this is just to make the economy weaker so Obama doesn't get reelected. I think we need to give all congress and senate members pay cuts. They all make too much money whether republican or democrat. Have you seen the suits they wear. I could not afford one suit like that let alone the vast wardrobes they have. I have a college degree and my pay check is a reflection of their work they do with the fancy suits. Cut their pay so they know what it is like to be a peasant like the rest of us. They should be ashamed of themselves for sending job overseas and making our great country weaker. They are our true enemy.

    April 9, 2011 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
  9. Joey

    No jobs would have gone overseas if most Americans had been willing and able to work for what each job is actually worth.
    Partially as a result of union advocacy, our people evolved a lifestyle that could not be sustained by our ability to produce.
    If one has a job, there is always someone waiting to replace him for less money.
    That is reality.

    April 9, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  10. L64

    Vote in all new reps next time that will send a message.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
  11. L64

    Should be a period after time. Grrr

    April 9, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  12. Joey

    L64, I read your post easily as it was.
    Here, the omission of a period causes almost no lack of clarity.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  13. L64

    Thanks, but as a teacher it bugged me!

    April 9, 2011 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
  14. Joey

    John, the illegal welfare recipients will vote one day, if they don't already. The government needs votes.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
  15. Joey

    What? An advocate for literacy?
    That's not very PC.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
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