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Even Ronald Reagan Negotiated

A long time ago, amid a fight like today's, the conservative's conservative told Congress he loved them.
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Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Much commentary on the recent deadlock in Washington has mentioned the previous, Clinton-era shutdown drama in 1995, only noting briefly a dozen or so other shutdowns going back to the 1970s. Below, an example of what those other fights sounded like. They were a lot kinder.

The gentle phrasing used in the past doesn't mean the fights weren't just as ugly, with consequences to match today's. One obvious example: The 1990 shutdown of the government under George H.W. Bush ended quickly, but the politically-bruised president soon reversed a key campaign promise, not to raise taxes (famously: "Read my lips, no new taxes!"). He lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, who hammered Bush on the change of course.

Delivered shortly before the first of eight subsequent shutdowns, the speech is clearly, despite the aw shucks tone, an announcement of tax cuts that Reagan wants and a willingness to twist arms to get them.

Now that it looks like we're in the aftermath of another bit of this nastiness, it's worth asking how previous leaders carried themselves through the kinds of budgetary collisions that led to the past week's drama. One of the more notable examples is from Ronald Reagan, who faced total or partial shutdowns of federal services no fewer than eight times in his eight years in office.

On April 28, 1981, Reagan went to Congress to talk about a budget impasse. This was only a month after being shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley, who had attacked Reagan with a pistol outside the Washington Hilton hotel on March 20, barely six weeks prior.

Agree with him or not, the tone here is striking. Delivered shortly before the first of those eight subsequent shutdowns, the speech is clearly, despite the aw shucks tone, an announcement of tax cuts that Reagan wants and a willingness to twist arms to get them.

But reading the below, it's hard to imagine any of it in the voice of the current GOP. After a long and seemingly heartfelt introduction thanking the members of Congress for sending encouraging messages to his hospital room, Reagan offers a plan, and asks they negotiate it. He's a politician, and he sounds like one, and this can be read as soft-selling and smarmy as much as plain-spoken and honest. But he's providing an opening here too. Reagan, here, sounds like someone who might bend a bit. As we know, he did, though in the end he got much of what he wanted.

Below is most of the speech. It's submitted less for its specifics, than as a bizarre, time-capsule-like example of what heated disagreements once sounded like in Washington, even in an era when shutdowns would still occur.

The entire text can be read here. Below, an extended excerpt:

I have come to speak to you tonight about our economic recovery program and why I believe it's essential that the Congress approve this package, which I believe will lift the crushing burden of inflation off of our citizens and restore the vitality to our economy and our industrial machine.

First, however, and due to events of the past few weeks, will you permit me to digress for a moment from the all-important subject of why we must bring government spending under control and reduce tax rates. I'd like to say a few words directly to all of you and to those who are watching and listening tonight, because this is the only way I know to express to all of you on behalf of Nancy and myself our appreciation for your messages and flowers and, most of all, your prayers, not only for me but for those others who fell beside me.

The warmth of your words, the expression of friendship and, yes, love, meant more to us than you can ever know. You have given us a memory that we'll treasure forever. And you've provided an answer to those few voices that were raised saying that what happened was evidence that ours is a sick society.

The society we heard from is made up of millions of compassionate Americans and their children, from college age to kindergarten. As a matter of fact, as evidence of that I have a letter with me. The letter came from Peter Sweeney. He's in the second grade in the Riverside School in Rockville Centre, and he said, “I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.” [Laughter] He added a postscript. “P.S. If you have to make a speech in your pajamas, I warned you.” [Laughter]

Well, sick societies don't produce men like the two who recently returned from outer space. Sick societies don't produce young men like Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who placed his body between mine and the man with the gun simply because he felt that's what his duty called for him to do. Sick societies don't produce dedicated police officers like Tom Delahanty or able and devoted public servants like Jim Brady. Sick societies don't make people like us so proud to be Americans and so very proud of our fellow citizens.

Now, let's talk about getting spending and inflation under control and cutting your tax rates.

Mr. Speaker and Senator Baker, I want to thank you for your cooperation in helping to arrange this joint session of the Congress. I won't be speaking to you very long tonight, but I asked for this meeting because the urgency of our joint mission has not changed.

Thanks to some very fine people, my health is much improved. I'd like to be able to say that with regard to the health of the economy.

It's been half a year since the election that charged all of us in this Government with the task of restoring our economy. Where have we come in this 6 months? Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, has continued at a double-digit rate. Mortgage interest rates have averaged almost 15 percent for these 6 months, preventing families across America from buying homes. There are still almost 8 million unemployed. The average worker's hourly earnings after adjusting for inflation are lower today than they were 6 months ago, and there have been over 6,000 business failures.

Six months is long enough. The American people now want us to act and not in half measures. They demand and they've earned a full and comprehensive effort to clean up our economic mess. Because of the extent of our economy's sickness, we know that the cure will not come quickly and that even with our package, progress will come in inches and feet, not in miles. But to fail to act will delay even longer and more painfully the cure which must come. And that cure begins with the Federal budget. And the budgetary actions taken by the Congress over the next few days will determine how we respond to the message of last November 4th. That message was very simple. Our government is too big, and it spends too much.

For the last few months, you and I have enjoyed a relationship based on extraordinary cooperation. Because of this cooperation we've come a long distance in less than 3 months. I want to thank the leadership of the Congress for helping in setting a fair timetable for consideration of our recommendations. And committee chairmen on both sides of the aisle have called prompt and thorough hearings.

We have also communicated in a spirit of candor, openness, and mutual respect. Tonight, as our decision day nears and as the House of Representatives weighs its alternatives, I wish to address you in that same spirit.

The Senate Budget Committee, under the leadership of Pete Domenici, has just today voted out a budget resolution supported by Democrats and Republicans alike that is in all major respects consistent with the program that we have proposed. Now we look forward to favorable action on the Senate floor, but an equally crucial test involves the House of Representatives.

The House will soon be choosing between two different versions or measures to deal with the economy. One is the measure offered by the House Budget Committee. The other is a bipartisan measure, a substitute introduced by Congressmen Phil Gramm of Texas and Del Latta of Ohio.

On behalf of the administration, let me say that we embrace and fully support that bipartisan substitute. It will achieve all the essential aims of controlling government spending, reducing the tax burden, building a national defense second to none, and stimulating economic growth and creating millions of new jobs.

At the same time, however, I must state our opposition to the measure offered by the House Budget Committee. It may appear that we have two alternatives. In reality, however, there are no more alternatives left. The committee measure quite simply falls far too short of the essential actions that we must take.

Reagan gives several details here, budgetary math specific to the debate at the time. He continues with his cajoling a minute later, and in place of threats of his own, suggests threats at a ballot box:

When I took the oath of office, I pledged loyalty to only one special interest group—“We the people.” Those people—neighbors and friends, shopkeepers and laborers, farmers and craftsmen—do not have infinite patience. As a matter fact, some 80 years ago, Teddy Roosevelt wrote these instructive words in his first message to the Congress: “The American people are slow to wrath, but when their wrath is once kindled, it burns like a consuming flame.” Well, perhaps that kind of wrath will be deserved if our answer to these serious problems is to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and add a little there. Well, that's not acceptable anymore. I think this great and historic Congress knows that way is no longer acceptable. [Applause]

Thank you very much.