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Who gets blamed for a government shutdown?

President Donald Trump got into a public verbal spat with congressional Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi...

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 6:07 AM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 6:07 AM

President Donald Trump got into a public verbal spat with congressional Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer when they met Tuesday in the Oval Office to work toward avoiding a partial shutdown on December 21, when funding for a large portion of the government expires.

Much of their disagreement turned on who would be blamed for a shutdown and who would own it if it occurred.

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"The President made clear he wants a shutdown," said Schumer after the meeting.

Starting with the mid-1990s clashes between President Bill Clinton and the then-fresh Republican majority in Congress, there have been seven polled government shutdowns or close calls, and though each situation was unique, Republicans have been blamed for most of them, although Democrats took the blame for the most recent, a short affair back in January, even though Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House at the time.

The shutdowns in late 1995 and 1995-96 were clearly blamed on the Republicans, who controlled the House and Senate at the time even though a Democrat, Bill Clinton, was in the White House. There was a partial shutdown in November 1995 and a full shutdown from December of 1995 into January 1996. Seven polls were conducted prior to, during and after those shutdowns asking who was to blame, President Clinton or the Republicans in Congress for their lack of compromise. A plurality of respondents said Republicans were more to blame than Clinton in every single poll. Between 43% and 51% blamed Republicans and between 25% and 34% blamed Clinton, depending on the poll.

In 1998, the government almost shut down when Clinton and the Republicans struggled to find compromise on a budget deal. Only one poll was taken on the possible shutdown, by Gallup/CNN/USA Today, and 56% of Americans said they would blame the Republican leaders in Congress if the government had to shut down.

Fast-forward to the next Democratic President, Barack Obama, who was working with a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-led Senate. After days of budget battles in Congress, a shutdown in 2011 was avoided at the last minute. Thirty-seven percent said in an NBC/WSJ poll that they would blame the Republicans in Congress over Democrats in Congress (20%) or Obama (20%).

A shutdown in 2013 and near-shutdown in 2015 tell similar stories. Of the six polls that asked who would be blamed for the 16-day shutdown in 2013, every one of them had a plurality -- between 38% and 53% -- attributing the blame to the Republicans in Congress. In 2015, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, two polls found the blame would go to Republicans and one poll showed a torn public, with some blaming Republicans and some blaming Obama and the Democrats.

While these shutdowns (or close calls) all carry the blame for Republicans, they also share similar circumstances. In 1995, 1996, 1998, 2011, 2013 and 2015, there was a Democratic president in the White House and at least one chamber of Congress controlled by the Republican Party (in four cases, both chambers were controlled by Republicans). So while this could be about blaming Republicans, the shutdown in 2018 shows it may be about blaming the opposite party of the President.

In early 2018 Democrats, despite holding neither chamber of Congress nor the White House, caused a brief shutdown over the plight of the children of undocumented immigrants Trump had stripped of protected status. Seven polls asked who should be or was going to be blamed for the shutdown. Three polls were torn between blaming Republicans and Democrats, two found a plurality who attributed responsibility to the Republicans, one poll went for the Democrats and one was torn between Democrats and Trump.

So Americans seemed to blame everyone that time around. Fewer blamed Trump (between 16% and 31%) than Democrats (between 29% and 34%), but both parties were, in the end, held responsible for the gridlock that caused a shutdown. But that's a change from the past four almost or actual shutdowns. The early 2018 shutdown was the first in 10 years where one party held the presidency, the House and the Senate.

And now, in late 2018? The showdown is over Trump's demand for funding for his wall at the border with Mexico, and Democrats are balking at additional border security money because they say more than $1 billion allocated in January was not entirely spent. Trump holds the presidency, but Democrats will soon be the majority in the House. This blame could be placed on the Democrats, as the opposing party to the President (and would fit with the 1998-2015 trend) or it could be seen as everyone's fault (fitting with the shutdown earlier this year).

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