New York State politicians contemplating whether to risk a shutdown of state government because of budget woes should consider the political boomerang effect and other unintended economic consequences of other government shutdowns from the past, according to a variety of political experts.
"A government shutdown is like having nuclear weapons - it's good to have in your arsenal but if you deploy it, all hell will break loose," said William Voegeli, a writer at the conservative Claremont Institute in California.
Perhaps the most famous government shutdown occurred in 1995, when a budget confrontation between then-President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans led by Rep. Newt Gingrich resulted in the federal government closing its doors. The six-day shutdown in November 1995 - followed by another 21-day shutdown later that holiday season - resulted in post offices and national parks being closed, delays in administration of programs including Medicare and Social Security, and delays or denials of travel visas.
Before the crisis, the Republicans had taken over many new seats in Congress following the 1994 election, vowing to reduce the budget and making Clinton seem weak. But when Gingrich and others forced the federal government shutdown, the public outrage actually made Clinton politically stronger. His administration later claimed the shutdown cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $800 million.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) recalled that his office received "many calls" from angry constituents, upset about the loss of services. "People realized who shut down the government," he said, warning that New York officials should think carefully before allowing a state-government shutdown.
"It was a big victory for Clinton," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "It showed that shutting down the government is not the best way to handle things. Americans hate bureaucracy, but they want their government to get things done."
A brief 1990 federal shutdown, which resulted from a dispute between then-Republican President George H.W. Bush and congressional Democrats also carried unexpected impact, Light noted. The budget battle eventually prompted Bush to agree to a tax increase that came back to haunt him in the 1992 election, which he lost to Clinton.
If New York State government were to close due to the fight in Albany over reducing a $9.2-billion state budget gap, the consequences might be more hurtful than anticipated for politicians, including Gov. David A. Paterson and members of the State Legislature, Light warned.
"It's all in the details of what you cut," Light said. Paterson "is putting things on the chopping block, like furloughing teachers, but parents want teachers in their kids' classroom."