The shutdown and threat of default had been planned well in advance. "I don't care what the price is," the Republican Speaker had declared two months before government offices closed all over the country. "I don't care if we have no executive offices and no bonds for 30 days." Six months before that, he had also telegraphed the House Republican Majority's coming brinkmanship strategy. "The President will veto a number of things and we'll then put them all on the debt ceiling and then he'll decide how big a crisis he wants." The year was 1995. The Speaker, Newt Gingrich.
Today, as another hostage crisis winds down in Congress, it is important to keep in mind that the similarities between 1995 and 2013 are not a coincidence. I served in the House when Speaker Gingrich shut the government down and threatened default 18 years ago. Then as now, the House Majority's goal remains the same: They want to end government-supported health insurance and leave families to fend for themselves.
This is not a new stance. Long before they decided the Affordable Care Act was tyranny, Republicans of an earlier generation were using exactly the same overheated language to attack Medicare. One Republican called Medicare "an ill-conceived adventure in government medicine... from which the patient is certain to be the ultimate sufferer." The Republicans in power in 1995 shared this view. Speaker Newt Gingrich memorably said that his party wanted Medicare to "wither on the vine." His top deputy, Majority Leader Dick Armey, argued in 1984 that "Medicare has no place in a free world."
In 1995, Gingrich and Armey initiated a plan to shut down the government and threaten default until President Bill Clinton agreed to end Medicare as we know it and turn Medicaid into an underfunded block grant. Their budget slashed Medicare by $270 billion and Medicaid by $165 billion, while giving $245 billion in tax breaks and loopholes to wealthy individuals and corporations. And while they did not succeed that time, the shutdown they caused cost the federal government $1.4 billion, and eventually resulted in deep cuts to the social safety net.
This year, this House Majority picked up Gingrich's standard and launched yet another do-or-die offensive against federal investments in America's health. Now they wanted to stop the Affordable Care Act, a transformative law that will make quality, affordable health care and coverage available to more families than ever, before it can do any good -- before Americans "get hooked on the sugar," in the words of Senator Ted Cruz. And once again they went after Medicare, one of the most-successful laws in our history and one of the bedrock foundations of our American middle-class.
Notice how quickly, in the middle of this self-inflicted crisis, Republican leaders pivoted to their original goal, and put profound changes to Medicare at the top of their wish list for upcoming budget negotiations. In the Wall Street Journal, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan recently called for "structural reforms to entitlement programs" and a "complete rethinking of government's approach to health care" as his preferred solution to the shutdown crisis. Congressman Ryan, of course, is also the author and architect of recent Republican plans to convert Medicare into an underfunded voucher system.
Over the years, the Republican agenda has not changed. They shut down the government and threatened default in 1995 for the very same reasons they did it in 2013. They want to destroy Medicare and stop any and all federal investments in families' health. This will no doubt be one of their highest priorities as we enter the next phase of negotiations in December. It lies at the heart of the Republican agenda, and they will continue to push it for as long as they are able, in the coming budget debates and otherwise.
Rosa DeLauro represents Connecticut's Third Congressional District and is the Ranking Democratic Member on the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee.