The first time my wife and I went to Washington, D.C., on vacation was in 1995.
We are both wonks about history, politics and government, so where better to immerse ourselves in all three at once than the nationâs capital? We have been back there twice more, including one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, which is a whole other story for another day.
Both of us work at newspapers and did back then, so we were aware that at the time of that first trip that there was a big budget battle brewing between then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and the Republican Speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich. We were, incidentally, staying at the hotel across from the Watergate that was used as a lookout by the burglars who famously (or infamously) broke into the office complex on behalf of Richard Nixonâs re-election campaign, although it was no longer a Howard Johnsonâs when we were there.
In those days before terrorism paranoia, there were two ways for tourists to visit the White House. You could just line up at the gate and wait your turn for a group tour (with the distinct possibility that you could get closed out and sent away if there were too many people there that day) or you could arrange what was billed as a slightly better tour through your district congressmanâs office (which is the only way to get a ticket now).
We arranged tickets through Rep. Patrick Kennedyâs office for an 8 a.m. tour, but on the night before we were watching the 11 p.m. news only to see Gingrich talking about how the government would be shut down the next day. No White House tour for us.
We finally got to Washington after years of talking about it and weeks of planning it and the politicians were shuttering everything for what was surely going to be the length of our visit and longer.
Kennedyâs office generously offered us a private tour of the Capitol building conducted by one of his staffers, which was a pretty neat consolation for our White House disappointment. (We also remind ourselves that at some point during our visit, intern Monica Lewinsky delivered pizza to Clinton in the Oval Office, touching off a whole other era of history.)
All of that was brought back to us last week when once again budget brinksmanship at the highest levels of government brought us to the verge of another government shutdown.
This took place, just as in 1995, one year after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives with a huge election gain.
I think that is somewhat reflective of the way the two parties tend to govern.
Democrats are incrementalists, content to gradually implement their agenda with numerous short gains over time. The appropriate sports analogy would be college football coach Woody Hayesâ three yards and a cloud of dust.
Republicans, however, tend to attempt big, comprehensive change all at once. Think long Tom Brady passes to Randy Moss in the end zone. It seems to be an internal contradiction that Republicans claim most Americans are conservative, and then try to push sudden, radical change on them.
The difference with the recent shutdown threat is that House Speaker John Boehner played it smarter than Gingrich did. Once again, Congressional Republicans played President Barack Obama like a cheap fiddle.
They threatened to kill one of the Democratsâ favorite babies by defunding Planned Parenthood (Iâm a sucker for perverse analogies) in order to achieve their budget and fiscal goals. That is the GOPâs typical m.o. They get their rank-and-file ground troops all revved up by invoking social issues like abortion and gay marriage, then wind up selling them out to benefit their real constituency â the big corporations and other wealthy contributors who fund their campaigns.
It worked like a charm. Republicans got tens of billions of dollars in budget cuts â billions more than they had originally sought â and they even got Obama to go out and brag about âthe largest annual spending cut in our historyâ as though it were his idea in the first place.
My hunch is that Obama thinks he won points with independent voters by appearing to compromise and work with Republicans. But in the end, both sides agreed, didnât they? So it is likely both sides will share the credit for having agreed. But the Republicans appeased their base by cutting billions of dollars from the Obama budget, while Obama further alienated Democrats by allowing popular programs to be cut (like heating assistance for low-income families) just to save something that shouldnât have been at risk in the first place, like the funding for Planned Parenthood and the Clean Air Act.
Boehner and the Republicans were the clear winner of that round.
Want to know who does and doesnât have clout with state government? Watch closely in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, the House Finance Committee will hold a hearing on Gov. Lincoln Chafeeâs sales tax proposal. They moved the starting time up from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m. to allow for an all-day marathon of testimony.
Unless I miss my guess, every business and other interest that finds itself possibly subject to new taxation will be there to argue that the sales tax not be applied to them. Even newspapers are weighing in on this fight, taking out full page house ads to advocate that newspapers shouldnât be taxed as Chafee proposes. (Interestingly, Chafee did not even suggest a tax on television advertising, or ads on his bĂȘte noire, talk radio.)
Which entities will be taxed and which will get General Assembly reprieves? That is how we will know who has juice in this state and who doesnât.
The plan to broaden the sales tax is going to clearly demonstrate how the sausage is made in Smith Hill. It is going to be fascinating to watch. Be sure to follow the fighting in your favorite newspaper, before it gets taxed.