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Nothing learned from past shutdowns

WASHINGTON – Don’t like the mess that led to today’s government shutdown? Nothing’s going to change anytime soon.

The latest self-inflicted crisis, the result of a bitter deadlock between Republicans and Democrats, is another illustration of the growing inability of the nation’s elected officials to govern in any logical, collegial fashion. The consequences for operating the government for the next few weeks, let alone the next few years, are daunting. New budget crises are only days away. Federal workers won’t know if paychecks are coming regularly, agencies can’t plan, contractors can’t be sure of payments, financial markets can’t be reassured.

The White House and Congress aren’t talking, let alone negotiating. On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats live in separate worlds, their leaders huddled with their loyalists in well-hidden offices.

They preside over a wary, increasingly cynical electorate that will find today’s impasse is the first volley in a season of showdowns. The government faces the threat of default if it doesn’t agree to increase its debt limit by Oct. 17, the second threat of default in less than three years. A few weeks later, government funding is again expected to run out, setting up another budget confrontation.

Brinkmanship is hardly new in American politics. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, a major force in tearing down decades-old segregation barriers, passed after tying up the Senate for 60 days. Government shutdowns, too, are not new. In late 1995 and early 1996, the federal government was forced to close on two separate occasions for 28 days.

But those fights taught lawmakers lessons that lasted. Constituents made it clear they didn’t like gridlock, and Congress and the president were reluctant to resort to such threats right away.

Today, those lessons are largely forgotten. This week’s push-it-to-the-edge drama continues a pattern that began in earnest four years ago.

Yet the politicians don’t change their strategies. Buoyed by legions of partisan cheerleaders and fundraisers, they vow not to give in next time. In the days ahead, Democrats will say they stood up to those who want to dilute the Affordable Care Act. Republicans will boast this week’s drama is the latest chapter in their decades-old crusade to pare the size of government. Fundraising pitches went out Monday.

Slowly but with increasing confidence, the two political parties reflect how their ideological wings have taken them over. The grassroots tea party movement is the dominant force in the Republican Party, and liberals are in clear control of the Democratic Party.

“The unpopularity of Congress doesn’t flow through the members, because so many are in safe districts,” explained William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Veteran lawmakers remember the 1995-96 shutdown, and the notion that Republicans took a beating. Clinton saw his Gallup poll approval rating jump past 50 percent just after the shutdown ended; it never went below that number again. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s image never recovered, and he was eventually pushed out of his job.

In some circles today, that conventional wisdom has shifted. Most members of Congress, and for that matter most constituents, don’t remember that shutdown, making new interpretations more accepted.

“A lot of people now say others learned the wrong lessons from 1996,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action, which is pushing an Obamacare repeal. Republicans retained Senate and House control, he noted, and within two years the nation had a balanced budget.

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