As the media frenzy grows over the Debt Ceiling negotiations, it’s helpful to briefly revisit similar events over the past forty years. The chart below reminds us that government shutdowns have become more protracted in our polarized era, and they seldom come without political consequences for the political party portrayed as the most responsible for the impasse—and in recent times, that has been the Republican Party.
|1976||Ford||10||Disagreement over funding for jobs programs education||Perhaps Pres. Ford who faced strong headwinds already|
|1977||Carter||12||Disagreement over funding for water projects||No clear winners and losers|
|1980||Carter||11||Disagreement over abortion restrictions in a funding bill||One more, minor nail in the Carter Presidency’s coffin|
|1981||Reagan||Only hours||Minor legislative timing matter||Not much political fallout|
|1984||Reagan||2||Partial shutdown of environmental and natural resource agencies||Minor legislative timing matter and no significant fallout|
|1986||Reagan||Only hours||Minor legislative timing matter||Not much political fallout|
|1990||HW Bush||3||Spending cuts vs tax hikes impasse||Pres. Bush and GOP Congress|
|1995-96||Clinton||21||Spending cuts and policy priorities||GOP Congress|
|2013||Obama||16||Obamacare funding standoff||All but GOP Congress more than Pres. Obama|
|2018-19||Trump||35||Funding for border wall||Pres. Trump and GOP congressional leadership|
The economic consequences of a breach of the debt ceiling are potentially large enough that Biden and the Democrats are strongly incentivized to negotiate with the GOP. But Republicans have taken the brunt of the political blowback over these negotiations in recent years. While voters are concerned about the national debt, the brinksmanship Republicans have used to attempt to force Democrats’ hand on budget cuts is deeply unpopular with voters.
Furthermore, the Republican legislators who are the most visible in these standoffs—the Matt Gaetzes and Ted Cruzes of the world—are not the faces Republicans want presented to swing voters. And the latest news on negotiations suggests Republicans are facing serious internal strife, with the same motley crew who held up Kevin McCarthy’s speakership now threatening to sink negotiations with Biden.
This is the first real test of McCarthy’s leadership, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll keep his slim majority together—and you can be sure, voters will be watching.