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Spin Control

The federal shutdown of 1990

Some readers have taken issue with Sunday's column and whether a federal government shutdown ke the one we just experienced would have happened if Tom Foley were speaker.

There was a shutdown, after all, in October 1990, when Foley was speaker, several pointed out in the comments section. So clearly, to some weighing in on the main website, Sunday's column is either deliberately wrong or so misinformed as to be totally discounted for further consideration.

Some take issue mainly with the headline, which does say "never". Reporters don't write headlines, but it would have been hard to fit a "shutdown like we just saw" in the space alloted. The blog column uses "showdown" which would have been a better noun. The column wasn't designed as a historical look at shutdowns and a point-by-point comparison, but here are a few things to consider:

At the end of September 1990,  Congress and President George H.W. Bush were debating spending cuts and tax increases. They'd been negotiating for several months but hadn't reached a compromise. On Sept. 30, a Sunday, the last day of the fiscal year, the Bush Administration and congressional leadership agreed on a package that would have cut $500 billion over 5 years, raised gasoline and beer taxes, reduced Medicare and farm subsidies. It had detractors from both parties, although Bush publicly suported it and Foley said it was a good compromise even though no one was going to be thrilled with it. Both tried to convince members of their party to vote yes over the next two days, although the more the public learned about the proposal, the more opposition it generated. During this time, the federal government continued to operate.

On Thursday of that week, the House rejected the compromise package on a bipartisan vote. On Friday, Bush said he would shutdown the government over the weekend. Monday of the following week was the Columbus Day holiday, so most federal offices were going to be closed for three days, and the main effects were felt at national parks and monuments.

Negotiators from Congress and the White House worked through the weekend to come up with a new package, which was approved by the House in a bipartisan vote sometime after midnight (Foley said he'd keep the House in session until they voted on the budget compromise and a plan to reopen the government) and passed later that day by the Senate. Federal employees reported for work on Tuesday morning.

So Congressional leadership and the White House agreed to a budget  compromise, it couldn't pass the House, so they worked out another compromise, and it passed. There was no discussion of not raising the debt limit during that dispute.

Whether this sounds remotely like 2013 shutdown is up to you. As the column said, in quoting members of Congress who served with Foley, he and Bush would've gotten together and worked something out. The accounts of 1990 suggests that's what happened back then, a testament not just to Foley but Bush senior, or put another way, a knock against both House Republican leadership and President Barack Obama.

Feel free to weigh in by clicking on Comments.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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