The federal government’s partial shutdown this week has triggered tremendous media scrutiny and contributed to an intense national debate over the country’s political and spending priorities.

It is, after all, the first time the government has shut down since a 21-day period in late 1995 and early 1996, a then record-setting impasse between Congress and the White House.

The previous shutdown is remembered today mostly as a victory for President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, over the Republican-controlled Congress led by Sen. Bob Dole (who Clinton would defeat in the 1996 presidential election) and especially over Speaker Newt Gingrich, who rocketed to fame in the 1994 midterm election and flamed out at the tail-end of the Monica Lewinsky scandal four years later.

But how did Hawaii do during the shutdown? Did we freak out over the closure of the USS Arizona Memorial, for example? Did our Democratic Party delegates in Congress condemn their GOP counterparts?

A look through the local newspaper archives reveals that the ’95-’96 shutdown was fairly mild — at least as seen from our newspapers.

Different Then, Yet Not

It was 17 years ago, and a lot in Hawaii has changed since that time.

Reports in The Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin said that Blockbuster Video had saturated the U.S. market and was now considering overseas expansion. Microsoft was the target of an antitrust suit. American troops were set to leave Bosnia. Kailua Theatre was showing the James Bond film Goldeneye. A case of Coors sold for $12.29 at Star Market.

Then again, many headlines back then seem remarkably current.

A United Nations report warned of global warming. Kapiolani Park was a haven for homeless people. Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Rowena Akaka was complaining about her fellow board members. Rep. Cynthia Thielen said gambling would not be good for Hawaii, but Rep. Joe Souki said it would. Councilwoman Donna Mercado Kim was harping on government waste. Columnist David Shapiro said same-sex marriage should not be a legislative priority. Hawaii’s prison system was called inhumane and corrupt. Keith Kaneshiro was city prosecutor. And the University of Hawaii football coach was fired after a losing season.

The growing disagreement between Congress and the president was already evident; the government had actually shut down for six days in November. Perhaps that is why the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin filled little print space with the budget troubles that began surfacing in early December of 1995.

When things fell apart, however, the papers put the story on the front page of their Dec. 16 issues. “Government shuts down again,” said the Advertiser, which ran “Shutdown to affect tourists first” on A2 with the news that up to 500 federal workers in the islands would be furloughed.

But that was far fewer than the 10,000 employees that had been furloughed in November 1995. And in both of that era’s shutdowns, those furloughed workers were eventually paid — something that raised complaints, considering that employees received income when they were not working. Since Congress and the president were able to agree on a defense budget, most military civilian employees remained on the job.

While it’s estimated that 25,000 federal employees in Hawaii are off the job during the current stoppage, some 17,000 civilians were affected during the ’95-’96 shutdown. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency has furloughed nearly all its staff; back then, the EPA was able to send a team to Oahu to check out noxious fumes at Campbell Industrial Park.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The Jan. 5, 1996 front page story.

All told, only 260,000 federal employees were furloughed nationwide as opposed to 800,000 this time around.

Then, as now, the press did report how upset tourists were that they could not visit the USS Arizona or Volcanoes National Park.

“If Clinton were here, I’d beat his face,” a California man told the Advertiser. As the shutdown wore on, there were reports of worries about visas for potential tourists from Asia who wanted to visit.

But another story said the furloughs would be welcome because they came during the Christmas season.

That was in marked contrast to an Advertiser editorial that called the shutdown “way beyond annoying” — but that was about it. There was no panicking over a possible hit to the local economy, which was already in the doldrums.

Those 1995 budget talks seemed to be on the verge of compromise — and then they fell apart again amid mutual recriminations. Negotiations were suspended for the Christmas holiday. Economist Paul Brewbaker, in a Dec. 28 interview, said Hawaii would experience slow growth in the New Year, something Advertiser editors seized on to lecture Gov. Ben Cayetano on reducing the size of state government. But Brewbaker and the editors didn’t even mention the government shutdown.

When the Advertiser published its list of the top stories of 1995, the shutdown wasn’t on it. The Star-Bulletin did mention it in its roundup — but of world stories, not local ones; Hawaii stories included the O.J. Simpson acquittal.

Missing Delegations

Unlike today, there was nary a word about Hawaii’s congressional delegation during the ’95-’96 shutdown.

The Star-Bulletin did report that Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Patsy Mink voted “present” on a Republican bill that would restrict the Clinton administration’s ability to borrow during the budget crisis. But when the House GOP voted to stop a Senate bill that would have reopened the government until Jan. 12, Abercrombie and Mink did not even vote.

Both Abercrombie and Mink were mentioned in a related story, on how they only voted with the Republican House — famous for its “Contract With America” — about 25 percent of the time, far less than most Democrats.

Sens. Dan Akaka and Dan Inouye were mentioned in the Star-Bulletin for being among the most influential Asian Americans, though Inouye had slipped from No. 1 to No. 9 on A. Magazine‘s “power list” after the GOP takeover of Congress. There was also a Star-Bulletin Kokua Line column that explained that all four Hawaii delegates were still pondering whether to get a congressional email account. Inouye’s chief of staff Jennifer Goto said her boss “intends to be part of the Internet but is waiting until the Senate comes up with a budget and framework for a system within the Senate.”

Other members of Congress seemed little concerned about the budget crisis either; some 25 congressional junkets were planned during the same period, something an Advertiser editorial called “outrageous.”

The Advertiser and Star-Bulletin increased their coverage of the shutdown as it approached the three-week mark in early January. A Jan. 5 front-page Advertiser story said “budget casualties were mounting relentlessly.” One estimate said some tour operators were losing “tens of thousands” of dollars a day. No new Social Security applications were being processed. The Small Business Administration stopped processing emergency loan requests.

But the biggest local fallout appeared to come from tourists who were bummed they couldn’t visit the Arizona. “Say goodbye to the furloughed dreams of Hawaii visitors,” read a headline.

By this time, the Star-Bulletin featured a graphic to accompany shutdown stories — e.g., “Day 19.” Under the headline “Are You Affected?” it asked readers to call and share their story with a recording machine. “A reporter may call you back,” the item promised.

That promise was kept, but it didn’t reveal a lot of pain. Five people were quoted in a Jan. 4 piece, including a Kaneohe resident angry that he had ever voted for Clinton. But this individual also said, “The smaller government right now during the partial shutdown has not affected us one bit,” and that he was convinced the federal government could get by with 300,000 fewer people on its payroll.

One Hawaii Kai woman, a flight attendant, was upset that she could not renew her passport, which was set to expire Jan. 30. A Waikiki teacher said Korean students might not get visas to visit Kalani High School.

An editorial in the Star-Bulletin, titled “Victims of Shutdown,” identified only one, and she was not from Hawaii: a Los Angeles nursing assistant who had open heart surgery at a veterans hospital on Dec. 11. She soon discovered that her sick pay had stopped along with her regular paycheck.

“The shutdown is not only unnecessary, it is also cruel,” opined the paper.

Just as the paper finally reached that conclusion, the shutdown ended. A funding deal was struck to keep the government open through at least Jan. 26.

The papers ran photos of happy visitors at the Arizona, as well as better-than-usual business at the Volcanoes House hotel and restaurant, where the owner said that, while they had suffered, their business would break even.

A blizzard on the East Coast soon took over the headlines and there is little indication that Hawaii was scarred by that shutdown.

That doesn’t mean anyone wanted to do it again.

A Star-Bulletin editorial stated, “Let the second federal shutdown be the last. … There is still no end in sight to the silliest Washington squabble in memory.”

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