MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Travel back in time with me for a moment to 1981, the government shutdown. Two-hundred-forty-one-thousand federal employees were furloughed, and this is what it sounded like when you called the White House switchboard.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In the absence of appropriations, the White House is involved in an orderly phase-down. All non-essential personnel have been furloughed. No one is here to answer your call.
KELLY: OK, that was 1981. And this week, the possibility of a government shutdown looms again over Washington. Lawmakers have until midnight tomorrow to find a way to avert that. Joining me now to ponder what we've learned from previous shutdown dramas is NPR's Ron Elving, senior editor and our correspondent on the Washington desk. Hey, there Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Refresh our memories here. There have been shutdowns since then, which you're going to tell me about. But 1981 - was that the first?
ELVING: In the modern context, yes. This goes back to changes to the budget process that were made in the 1970s, changes that made it really necessary for the president and Congress to work together in certain ways. And here's a news flash. Sometimes they don't.
ELVING: There were three short shutdowns while Ronald Reagan was president and another short one under George H.W. Bush.
KELLY: You said short, though - so in the grand scheme of things, not as huge a deal as they could been.
ELVING: Just nuisances, theatrical gestures, if you will. But then Newt Gingrich happened. He was the new speaker. In 1995, the Republicans had a brand new majority in the House, and Newt Gingrich decided the budget was the place to go to war with President Bill Clinton.
KELLY: OK. What happened then?
ELVING: In November of that year and again in December and January, the Congress sent bills to the president, daring him to veto them. He did, and that meant no new appropriations were made or available to the government. And that meant all non-emergency functions of the government started shutting down.
KELLY: And how long did they stay shut down?
ELVING: First time was several days, and people thought everyone had learned their lesson. But they came back for a full three weeks the second time around.
KELLY: Three weeks - I had forgotten that. Now, have we seen that long shutdown in the years and decades since?
ELVING: In the fall of 2013, Ted Cruz was a newly elected Republican senator, and he convinced a large group of like-minded House Republicans that they could go to war with their leadership as he went to war with his as well as of course going to war with the White House. Barack Obama was president. And the big issue was Obamacare, and they wanted to cripple it in the budget. And they managed to shut the government down for about two weeks.
KELLY: To be clear, the military does not shut down. Air traffic controllers still have to show up at work. What does it actually mean...
ELVING: That's right.
KELLY: ...When they say shutdown?
ELVING: TSA still looks at your bags and so on. Much of the shutdown disruption applies to things that are not emergencies. But we do talk in these days about 800,000 immediate furloughs in the federal government. More than a million other federal employees are told to show up with no idea when they're going to be paid. As a result, the federal government does not function well in anything other than the emergency processes. But it should be made clear. It's not as though the military is suddenly going to go on furlough.
KELLY: And does this actually save money?
ELVING: It does not because in the long run, all the same work has to be done, and all the same paychecks are always issued. And so in the end, it costs money because there are shutdown and restart costs. The frictional costs of these shutdowns are actually quite substantial - tens of millions of dollars at least. And as a result, they actually lose money.
KELLY: Do they actually accomplish anything?
ELVING: It's hard to see how they accomplish anything in terms of the efficiency or effectiveness of the government itself. But they do have the effect of energizing and emphasizing the differences between the political parties and the factions within the party.
ELVING: They can be highly stimulating for donors and activists.
KELLY: So here we sit on the precipice maybe of yet another one. What's your prediction, Ron? Where are we headed tomorrow?
ELVING: Most of the impulses and most of the mechanisms of government are pointing towards a compromise. But it only takes a few disruptive personalities, possibly just a single disruptive personality to keep that deal from coming together in a timely fashion.
KELLY: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.