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Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala Reflects On 1995 Government Shutdown


There's only been one other time in U.S. history that the government was shut down for 21 days. In 1995, the government had similar dilemmas with different players.


BILL CLINTON: Congress has failed to pass straightforward legislation necessary to keep the government running.


NEWT GINGRICH: ...Among House Republicans a very deep commitment to staying here and getting the job done.


LEON PANETTA: But the House Republicans have basically been in a lock. They're on a revolution.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There is no real desire on the part of this administration to do anything except play politics.

SHAPIRO: That shutdown was caused by a deadlock between President Clinton, a Democrat, and congressional Republicans over balancing the budget. And Donna Shalala was President Clinton's secretary of Health and Human Services at the time. She oversaw 125,000 government workers. Now she is a newly sworn-in Democratic congresswoman from Florida looking at the shutdown from the legislative instead of the executive branch. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DONNA SHALALA: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Back in 1995, what challenges did you face overseeing 125,000 workers in the Department of Health and Human Services?

SHALALA: Well, it was devastating. And I of course had Social Security and Medicare. We were having conversations about how we were going to deliver Social Security checks and serious conversations about what we were going to do about Head Start, about the National Institutes of Health. But it was tragic. Employees - federal employees expect security in their jobs. But more importantly, every single one of them is a patriot. Every single one of them is dedicated to their positions, and doing it partially or doing the entire government, as we experienced - there - it's just irresponsible.

SHAPIRO: Are you hearing stories from your constituents today that remind you of what you went through more than 20 years ago?

SHALALA: I am. And so many of my constituents - both the husband and the wife work for the government. So it's even a double-whammy for those families. Air traffic controllers, people that get food stamps - a quarter of the people in my district get food stamps. They are scared to death.

SHAPIRO: In the last couple of weeks, we've seen government agencies put out guidance to furloughed employees on how to negotiate delayed rent payments or suggesting that people not getting paid could hold garage sales to make ends meet. Did you have to make similar suggestions for HHS employees who weren't getting a paycheck in 1995?

SHALALA: I did not.

SHAPIRO: You did not.

SHALALA: I did not. I simply said to them, we're fighting as hard as we can to get this government open. I did reach out to each one of them and communicated with them and asked their - the middle managers in the department. We had a little bit of an option. We had about 40 percent of the money to pay them. So we figured out that we didn't have to take the deductions out of that money. So I actually got some salary out to my employees by not taking the deductions out.

SHAPIRO: You know, it seems like 1995 was a real turning point, kind of the first time a shutdown was weaponized as a way for politicians to try to get their legislative way. And since then, it seems to have become more common. Do you have ideas about what can be done to prevent hundreds of thousands of federal workers from being used as political pawns in this way going forward?

SHALALA: Yeah, elect grownups to Congress and to the presidency. And the people that run our government ought to care about people, whether they're elected officials or they're appointed officials and members of the Cabinet. I mean, there's no excuse for this. There literally is no excuse. This is not a financial crisis in the United States. This has to do with ego. And we ought to get this settled as quickly as possible.

SHAPIRO: Congresswoman Donna Shalala, Democrat of Florida and former secretary of Health and Human Services, thanks for talking with us.

SHALALA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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