Lawmakers have spent months flirting with a federal government shutdown. It’s a high-risk game. The shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, when a budget impasse closed federal government agencies for 26 days, showed they can be political suicide for whoever gets blamed for them. This time around, Senator Ted Cruz is leading the charge, delivering an overnight “fauxbuster” railing about Obamacare, which promptly earned him a lecture about democracy from fellow GOP senator John McCain.
Federal government shutdowns over budget impasses are a relatively new phenomenon. Until 1980, federal agencies continued to function during funding gaps but minimized “nonessential operations” while they waited for the government to enact annual appropriations bills or a stopgap continuing resolution.
The man who got blamed for the last shutdown was — remember? — Newt Gingrich. He’s now hosting CNN’s resurrected Crossfire, but in those days, he was the Republican House Speaker, a Robespierrian figure whose influence rivaled that of President Bill Clinton. All that changed one morning in November 1995, when Gingrich told legendary New York Daily News reporter Lars Erik Nelson that he’d force a government shutdown because Clinton hadn’t spoken to him during a 25-hour round-trip flight to the funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. That’s right, he’d shut down the government because he felt snubbed. Nelson reported:
“This is petty,” Gingrich confessed. “I’m going to say up front it’s petty, but I think it’s human. When you land at Andrews and you’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off by the back ramp … you just wonder, where is their sense of manners, where is their sense of courtesy?”
Enter Ed Murawinski, a talented caricaturist who worked mostly on the sports pages. Murawinski was instructed to draw Gingrich as a diaper-clad baby throwing a fit. Working fast to make the 7 p.m. deadline for the tabloid’s first edition, he gave the House Speaker chubby thighs, a bottle and frustrated tears on his baby face.
So Murawinski was shocked when he came into the office the next day. “Apparently, it was all over the news,” he says. The switchboard lit up with calls about the cartoon for Murawinski, Nelson and the paper’s editors. Moreover, at the House of Representatives, someone had displayed an eight-foot-tall blowup of the front page. There was a tussle over its removal. Murawinski recounts, “It was amazing” — in part because the cartoonist never considered himself political; in fact, he says the political extremism in the United States today “drives me crazy.” Budget impasses changed when Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti issued two opinions that said federal agencies cannot operate unless Congress has appropriated them money. There are a few exceptions, including for agencies with a clear connection to the “the safety of human life or the protection of property.”“It was a rushed job,” Murawinski, now 61, recalls. “In my mind, I didn’t have enough time for it.” Back in the pre-digital days, Murawinski sketched on a 20-by-30-inch illustration board, inked it over with paint and then applied a gray wash for shade and depth. After dispatching the drawing to the engraving room, Murawinski went home. Like his editors, he had no idea the cartoon would encapsulate public opinion of Newt for a long time to come.
Unlike the U.S., most countries don’t stop functioning when the legislature and the executive can’t come to terms on a budget. For instance, the rejection of a prime minister’s budget in a parliamentary system is similar to a vote of no confidence. It usually causes the prime minister to step down and spending to be handed over to a caretaker government. Civil services continue and government employees continue to work, even in the technical absence of a government.
As recently as 2011, Gingrich was still arguing that the shutdown helped Republicans — and was Clinton’s fault. Whatever really happened, the image of Crybaby Gingrich resonates. In January 2012, when Gingrich was running for the Republican presidential nomination, a New Hampshire voter brought a blowup of the Murawinski front page to a Gingrich campaign appearance. And though some found Newt charming and refreshing on the campaign trail, the image of him throwing a tantrum and shedding tears stuck. One critic even accorded Crybaby Newt meme status. Maybe that will change as a result of Crossfire — Gingrich has promised civilized political debate — but it’s too soon to tell.
As for Murawinski, he’s still surprised that his work has had such lasting power. Then again, ”The subject matter was so great,” he says, “and I guess I got the point across.”
Update, October 1: Looks like the Daily News did it again, with another zeitgeist-catching government shutdown cover. Murawinski says he can’t take credit for this one.