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Column: Shutdown Is a Legitimate Political Weapon

One party controls the White House and the Senate by less than the margin needed to end a filibuster, and the other party controls the House by a wide margin. A fundamental conflict over government spending is at the heart of an impasse that leads to a shutdown of the federal government.

The year is not 2013 but 1981 ... and 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1987. That’s right, the Reagan years, when President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill would work things out and avoid having to close the Washington Monument. With all due respect to Chris Matthews and other purveyors of this narrative popular in today’s Washington, the reality was quite different.

I joined the staff of the Office of Personnel Management in 1981. Soon after, several decisive actions by the president demonstrated his determination to show that lines had been crossed. One came in August with the firing of striking air traffic controllers. Another came Nov. 20, when Reagan vetoed an appropriations bill that did not achieve at least half of his proposed reduction of $8.4 billion in domestic spending. In the absence of appropriations, the administration shut down the government for four days.

That shutdown ended with the passage of a “clean” continuing resolution that provided appropriations through Dec. 15, during which time a deal was negotiated for funding the remainder of the fiscal year. But on Oct. 1, 1982, a battle over spending levels again resulted in a shutdown. After two days, Congress passed a short continuing resolution. When that expired Dec. 17, another shutdown ensued, lasting five days. It ended with an agreement in which Democrats dropped their demand for a hugely expensive “jobs bill” and Reagan gave up funding for the MX missile program.

A year later, in November 1983, it was deja vu all over again. O’Neill and other House Democrats voted to increase education by a billion dollars beyond the president’s request and made deep cuts in defense. A short-term continuing resolution expired, and a five-day shutdown began. It ended with a compromise in which education funding increased by just $100 million and the MX missile was funded.

In the presidential election year of 1984, Democrats insisted on a massive increase in funding for water projects and a civil rights legislative package. Republicans attached to the continuing resolution a crime bill that Reagan had proposed. A brief shutdown ensued on Oct. 1, just a month before Election Day. The parties agreed to a temporary extension to keep negotiating, but that too expired before Democrats dropped their water-project funding and civil rights legislation, after which Reagan signed a one-year continuing resolution.

Later, in Reagan’s second term, there were two more shutdowns: in October 1986 and December 1987. In none of these instances did the world come to an end. In each of them, the president engaged in good-faith negotiations to resolve the impasse. Reagan never refused to talk seriously with O’Neill and House Democrats. Each side approached shutdowns as an “action-forcing event,” in which hard bargaining would take place.

Both sides recognized that the power of the purse was the most important power that Congress wielded and that a great deal of policy was made through spending decisions. They understood that it was perfectly legitimate for both a president and Congress to use spending fights as a forum for the resolution of policy disputes.

In today’s Washington, by contrast, President Obama has long refused even to consider talking with House Republicans, despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act remains enormously unpopular and is plagued with major implementation problems. (One meeting with congressional leaders, as happened Wednesday, is not really negotiating.) For their part, House Republicans have been badly burned by a president who has reneged on negotiated agreements in the past. They have little incentive to play Charlie Brown to Obama’s Lucy and her football.

In one sense, government shutdowns have often been part of the push and pull of Washington’s appropriations process. But this time things are different.

Democrats who chose to force through a fundamental change in the nation’s health-care system without a single Republican vote when they controlled both legislative branches are simply refusing to come to terms with the fact that the House is now controlled — by a wide margin — by the other party. House Republicans have won two successive elections based in no small part on their opposition to Obamacare. The president ignores that fact only at his — and the nation’s — peril.

Joseph A. Morris was general counsel of the Office of Personnel Management from July 1981 to December 1985.