Feature:Opinion

Who’s really to blame for the 1996 government shutdown?

Chris Ullman Communications Professional

The government-shutdown blame game is in full swing. Which party will suffer the public’s wrath over delayed Social Security checks and shuttered monuments? Republicans are still smarting from the last time the government closed in 1996, when President Clinton got the upper hand. But a fresh look at history shows Republicans are not fully to blame. It turns out they had an accomplice . . . me, or more precisely, my lips.

On a chilly winter day in December 1995, steps from the House speaker’s U.S. Capitol suite in an ornate, high-ceiling room befitting such an important subject, gathered the top congressional leadership — Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and all the committee chairmen. Ringing the room were top aides and other functionaries lucky enough to witness history.

The topic at hand was momentous: give President Clinton the spending bill he desired and keep the government open, or deliver a bill that cut spending, which he’d reject, leading to the shutdown of the government. Pragmatics or principle? The Gingrich Revolutionaries, signatories of the Contract with America, were torn.

An hour or so into the hand-wringing, unresolved debate, Dick Armey, from across the room, pointed and spoke: “You. Whistle for us.” He was looking at me, but just in case, I turned around to see if there was anyone other than a wall behind me. There wasn’t.

He said, “No, you with the bow tie . . . whistle.”

Suddenly, every eye was on me. Some knew of my whistling prowess but others were clearly mystified. Rep. John Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee, basked for a moment, acknowledging to the group that I was his committee spokesman.

My brief Capitol Hill career flashed before my eyes. This was weird, but it sure was cool.

“What song would you like to hear,” I dutifully asked.

“Dixie!” drawled the Texan.

But my lips were neither moist nor puckered. And I feared confusing Dixie with the Yellow Rose of Texas, which I had nervously done on another occasion when asked to whistle without a warm-up.

As the words flowed through my mind, the notes passed through my lips. Awed by the setting and inspired by the audacity of the request, I rendered a rousing Dixie.

As the last sounds were absorbed by the august setting, the room burst into cheers and applause. The meeting summarily ended. People flowed out of the room to the startled expressions and smiles of the Capitol Hill Police.

A day later Republicans sent Clinton a bill he wouldn’t sign and the government shut down.

For the sake of seniors, tourists … and Republicans, perhaps I should avoid Capitol Hill this week.

Chris Ullman, a D.C.-based communications professional, is the four-time international whistling champion.