Government unions will play key role in shutdown fight

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman

It looks like history may be repeating itself.

A stalemate between a Republican House and a Democratic president may result in a government shutdown, just like it did in 1995 when Bill Clinton was president. It’s also a repeat of a key role played by government employee unions.

What’s different now is that the public has awakened to how they’ve been duped with false promises about big government.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, the public-sector unions reportedly played a huge role behind the scenes; today their role has been brought into the open, becoming common knowledge even before the mass union protests at the Wisconsin state capitol.

President Obama’s allegiance toward government unions is well known. The failed $800 billion stimulus was mostly about protecting government jobs. His minions in Organizing for America have orchestrated the Wisconsin protests, which Obama labeled “an assault on unions.” And it’s well known how the unions spent $400 million for the 2008 election.

That’s the backdrop as House Republicans insist on billions in spending cuts before they approve funds for the rest of government. The House spent long days and nights in session to create their plan; the Senate Democrats sit inactive instead, criticizing lots but doing nothing.

So the action comes from the public workers, as their demonstrations provide visual proof of who wants big government to continue unchecked. Their key role was behind the scenes in the 1995-96 shutdowns, but every bit as vital.

These unions believe they will benefit from emphasizing the negative aspects of a shutdown, just as they did when Bill Clinton was president. That story is rarely told, but needs to be.

As reported by The Washington Times in March 1996:

President Clinton’s close ties with federal employee unions enabled him to weather two record government shutdowns and an unprecedented $80 billion raid on federal retirement funds while laying the blame on Republicans.

Internal documents from both the administration and unions reveal close coordination between the unions and Mr. Clinton in developing a strategy of confrontation with Republicans over the spending bills needed to keep the government open and prevent hundreds of thousands of government employees from being furloughed.

The unions not only took the administration’s side in the confrontation, but the largest union — the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) — urged Mr. Clinton to veto the bills and shut the government down for weeks rather than compromise with Republicans.

Meanwhile, the unions provided critical political cover for the administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill by waging an extensive public relations campaign designed to blame the confrontation and shutdowns entirely on the Republicans, particularly on the House’s 73 freshmen.

Leaders of the union, which says it represents 700,000 of the government’s 2 million employees, deduced that throwing employees out of work for a few weeks with no guarantee of pay would be better than the higher federal pension contributions and large agency cuts the GOP was planning, which might force extensive layoffs.

The 2011 showdown is different, both because public opposition to big government is higher today than it was in 1995 and because of widespread awareness that public-sector unions are a major factor in the explosive growth of government. Their activism brought them salary, benefit and retirement packages that dwarf many in the private sector, but at the expense of the rest of us. As other Americans feel the pain of hard times, they also resent the unshared sacrifice from many who call themselves public servants.

Today is also different because the Tea Party movement is paying close attention — using modern communications and social media to bypass liberal reporters who dominated the coverage of the last shutdown.

The truth is, a shutdown is really just a slowdown, because hundreds of thousands of federal workers will remain on the job to defend the country, patrol the borders, keep travel flowing, tend to VA patients, and send out Social Security checks. (And the Post Office will stay open, too.)

The real battle is for the hearts and minds of Americans. We can’t let their desire to get government back under control wane under shutdown-related stress.

Those who wish a shutdown are few in number, but so are those who can be manipulated into blaming it on those who champion the downsizing of government.

Ernest Istook was a U.S. Congressman for 14 years and is now a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.