We’re hearing a lot of complaining from Democrats about Republicans shutting down the government, but they sure don’t mind doing it when abortion is on the table.
Here are four times a Democratic president and Democrat-controlled Congress earned, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said of President Trump, an “F for failure of leadership” amid a government shutdown. There are others, of course, but these four were each over abortion.
To be clear, these shutdowns were really “funding gaps,” during which time government employees received only half their paychecks or paychecks were delayed due to congressional failures. This is similar to a “shutdown” today, since most of the government remains running as key operations continue to function during a shutdown. The pain is felt in the wallet. The same was true then, as employees had to look elsewhere for additional income.
1. Holding the U.S. Hostage to Medicaid-Funded Abortions
The first of these “shutdowns” over abortion occurred in September 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president, Robert Byrd led the Senate, and Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House. It was one of the longest shutdowns in history, lasting 12 days as the House held its ground against the Senate to maintain a ban on Medicaid funding for abortions, except to save the life of the mother.
Rep. Daniel Flood, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and—as The New York Times described him at the time—“a flamboyant former actor with bejeweled fingers and pleated shirts,” led the fight to keep the ban in place. The Senate wanted funding to be expanded to cover abortions in cases of incest, rape, and the “health” of the mother.
“Fourteen members of the Senate, led by Warren G. Magnuson, 72‐year‐old Democrat of Washington, an earthy man who speaks in a hoarse whisper, resolutely uphold the Senate’s position,” the Times reported, “to allow Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest, and when ‘medically necessary,’ a term that House members consider deliberately vague.”
The abortion debate became an issue because it was linked to $60.1 billion in funds for the Labor Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Unable to reach an agreement, the House and Senate passed a short-term funding bill to reopen the government and give Congress more time to debate the issue. As stated in USA Today, “Democrats failed a crucial leadership test and allowed an intra-party disagreement to shutter the government.”
2. Same Fight, Different Month
Another shutdown ensued the next month because Democrats “failed in leadership” and the temporary measure that had ended the previous shutdown ran out. More than a week later, they still couldn’t come to an agreement. They had to send another temporary bill to the president to get government up and running again.
“Political vulnerability, posturing, personality conflicts, the absence of a strong leadership position, the Senate tradition of greater liberalism and a deeply divided nation all have been cited as factors in a three month deadlock between the House and Senate on the Federal financing of abortions,” the Times wrote.
3. We’ll Make Americans Pay for Abortions Or Else
Once again, the Democrats couldn’t get it together as the country faced a third shutdown. For eight days they fought over wording of a proposed compromise, until a deal was struck to expand funding to cover “medical procedures” for some victims of incest and rape, as well as medically necessary abortions in cases when the mother would suffer “severe and long‐lasting physical health damage” if she gave birth.
Many federal employees at the time felt the shutdown deeply. The Labor Department sent out a memo advising employees “to consider going on welfare, purchasing cheaper food, and seeking the services of charitable organizations,” the Times reported.
“Veterans of recent military service may be eligible for assistance by the American Red Cross,” the memorandum advised. “Relatives can perhaps help out Social service organizations and churches and synagogues can sometimes give emergency assistance.”
4. The Issue Resurfaces Two Years Later
A couple of years later, with Democrats still in control, abortion funding was back in the limelight as the House and Senate haggled over restricting funding for abortions and raising congressional pay. The Times called it “one of the angriest Senate‐House confrontations in years,” and it lasted for 11 days.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas called the deadlock a “game of brinksmanship” that brought no glory to either side, the Times reported. “It’s a mutual case of stubbornness,” he said.
After sending thousands of employees home with only half their pay, Congress finally agreed to continue Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape and incest, but dropped the provision to fund abortions when the mother’s health was at risk.
So, you see, Democrats wailing about a shutdown in the era of Trump is a lot like the pot calling the kettle black, which pretty much captures the state of politics in Washington today, yesterday, and, no doubt, tomorrow.