Based on some lines from the Gettysburg Address, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has concluded that there is no way “President Lincoln, the founder of the modern Republican Party, would have supported a government shutdown for a year, for a week, for a day, or for a minute.” Putting aside for the moment the question of how well Senator Kaine can know Lincoln’s mind, it’s a glaringly ahistorical statement. The government shutdown as we know it today wasn’t given its underlying conditions until an 1884 appropriations rider banning the government from using volunteers when appropriations weren’t forthcoming. This made it into law with the 1905 Anti-Deficiency Act. The tug of war between the executive and the Congress over the nation’s pursestrings has always been there, but the ban on volunteers gave it teeth by preventing the executive from asking for workers to carry on, thereby creating deficiencies that Congress would feel compelled to make up later. It made shutdowns hurt.


We don’t know how Lincoln would have operated in a modern shutdown but we do know that he had a pretty expansive view of executive power. And we also know that he was willing to spend without Congress’s approval. On April 20, 1961, he ordered his treasury secretary, Solomon P. Chase, to spend $2 million on “military and naval measures necessary for the defense and support of the government”—without congressional authorization. Even more brazen was his order to Chase to work outside the government and transfer the funds to three private citizens. As he explained, “The several departments of the government at that time contained so large a number of disloyal persons that it would have been impossible to provide safely, through official agents only, for the performance of the duties.” He instead avoided this 19th-century version of the deep state and granted the funds to “citizens favorably known for their ability, loyalty, and patriotism.”

A Lincoln Shutdown
Photo by Flickr user reivax (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We don’t know what Lincoln would do in a modern shutdown, but we do know what he did when he perceived a need. And we know there’s a long record of politicians using Lincoln not for shutdown shaming but for a much larger project. “Makers of the modern ‘imperial presidency’ have drawn heavily on the example and immortal fame of Abraham Lincoln,” noted historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, “for vindication of their actions, conveniently ignoring the extent to which precedents taken for the Civil War are rendered invalid by its uniqueness.” Lincoln’s emergency bears no resemblance to the situation on today’s border, but his use of executive power has often proven all too tempting. Senator Kaine may want to rethink this particular historical reference.Sources:
Justin P. DePlato, The Cavalier Presidency: Executive Power and Prerogative in Times of Crisis (Lexington Books, 2014).
William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (Vintage Books, 2009).
Don Edward Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1987).

Many other Political Uses of the Past below…

Sen. Tim Kaine: Lincoln would not have supported a government shutdown “for a minute”

Tim KaineI will be opposing the motion that is on the floor this evening because the first business of this body should be to reopen government. I think of the question that Abraham Lincoln raised at Gettysburg. He talked about this Nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal and the question about whether any nation dedicated to that proposition can long endure. I don’t think President Lincoln, the founder of the modern Republican Party, would have supported a government shutdown for a year, for a week, for a day, or for a minute.

–Sen. Tim Kaine (D–VA), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Richard Durbin: “No President in the history of this country has ever shut down his own government”

Richard DurbinDonald Trump said: I am prepared to shut down this government for months, even years. Now, this President is making history. No President in the history of this country has ever shut down his own government.

–Sen. Richard Durbin (D–IL), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Patrick Leahy: Appropriations that would have kept the government open “had more bipartisan votes than they have had in over 20 years”

Patrick LeahyEvery single bill to keep this government open has been passed by this Senate or the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be passed again if Republicans allow it to come to a vote. They passed almost unanimously out of committee. Senator Shelby and I worked very, very hard to have bipartisan bills, and we did. I think the appropriations bills have had more bipartisan votes than they have had in over 20 years. Now, where are we? We are on the 18th day of the Trump shutdown.

–Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–VT), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. John Cornyn: British conversion of ships to oil fuel “changed world history” and made “Middle East oil reserves a national security imperative”

John CornynToday the Senate will vote to begin consideration of legislation that will address some of the seemingly never-ending challenges the world–including the United States–is facing in the Middle East. The decision made at the beginning of the 20th century by then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to convert British ships from coal to oil for fuel changed world history by making access to Middle East oil reserves a national security imperative for all developed nations.

–Sen. John Cornyn (R–TX), Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Marco Rubio: Foreign policy is “an area that traditionally has not been partisan”

Marco RubioYou would think that in the midst of everything else that is going on, this would be a really good way to start the new Congress, in foreign policy, in an area that traditionally has not been partisan–or shouldn’t have been–by combining these four bills into S. 1, which is what is before us today.

–Sen. Marco Rubio (R–FL), Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Marco Rubio: “Hezbollah is better funded, better equipped, and has more armaments than at any time in its history”

Marco RubioToday, Hezbollah is better funded, better equipped, and has more armaments than at any time in its history. We all recall the Hezbollah-Israel war from about over a decade and a half ago. The next Israel-Hezbollah war will be far deadlier and costly because Hezbollah no longer simply depends on Iran to provide them the weapons.

–Sen. Marco Rubio (R–FL), Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. John Cornyn: “Historically” border security has not been “so polarizing”

John Cornyn We need drones, radar, and sensors to help maximize border security, as well as access to the Rio Grande for Border Patrol agents so they can police the border for illegal entry. This shouldn’t be a partisan debate, and historically, our differences on this topic have not been so polarizing. I think the nature of our political system today makes it easy to forget that not too long ago, border security was something supported by both political parties.

–Sen. John Cornyn (R–TX), Border Security, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Patrick Leahy: apprehensions at the southwest border are at 1970s levels

Patrick LeahyThe reality is that apprehensions at the southwest border have dropped to similar levels we had in the 1970s.

–Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–VT), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Sen. Richard Durbin: “We have fewer people seeking to cross the border illegally now than we have in 45 years”

Richard DurbinWe are going to be told we are facing a security crisis at the border, and it turns out that we have fewer people seeking to cross the border illegally now than we have in 45 years, and the apprehensions of those people have gone down dramatically from 1.6 million to slightly under 400,000, and we have already dramatically increased the number of people in Border Patrol.

–Sen. Richard Durbin (D–IL), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 8, 2019

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Rep. Alcee Hastings: Previous Republican-led Congress was the “most closed” in US history

Alcee HastingsLast Congress, we witnessed the Republicans lead the most closed Congress in the history of our country. Republicans blocked everything from immigration reform and infrastructure to gun safety and lowering prescription drug costs.

–Rep. Alcee Hastings (D–FL), Adopting the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 116th Congress; Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 2, House Floor, January 4, 2019

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Rep. Tom Cole: The GOP-led 115th Congress “did more deregulation than any Congress in American history”

Tom ColeIt was the last Congress that did more deregulation than any Congress in American history.

–Rep. Tom Cole (R–OK), Adopting the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 116th Congress; Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 2, House Floor, January 4, 2019

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Rep. Zoe Lofgren: 1970s congressional reform, spurred by Watergate, changed “how we do business forever”

Zoe Lofgren Fueled by the Watergate scandal, the new Members did much to change the Congress. They decentralized power. They invigorated our oversight responsibilities. They began a conversation that would change how we do business forever. They decentralized power. They invigorated our oversight responsibilities. They began a conversation that would change how we do business forever. For example, televising the floor proceedings; the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act.

–Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D–CA), Adopting the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 116th Congress; Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 2, House Floor, January 4, 2019

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Rep. John Sarbanes: Congress has continually “wrestled with how to be more effective”

John SarbanesFor much of modern congressional history, Congress has continuously wrestled with how to be more effective as the first branch of government. In the past, when the challenges grew, we have come together as a body to explore reforms to our rules and to institutional design, congressional capacity, and the matter of resources. In 1945, in 1965, and again in 1992, Congress convened Joint Committees to study the functioning of Congress and to propose comprehensive, expert-guided reforms.

–Rep. John Sarbanes (D–MD), Adopting the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 116th Congress; Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 2, House Floor, January 4, 2019

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Rep. Tim Ryan: Since 1980s, supply-side economics has helped keep wages stagnant

Tim RyanWages have been stagnant for 30 years. People work hard, play by the rules, and still get to their retirement, and they lose their pension or their pension is cut in half. … Year in and year out for 40 years, this has been going on in this country. Some people will say: Just cut taxes for the wealthiest people, and all that wealth will trickle right down to the Lordstowns, the Youngstowns, and the Gary, Indianas of the world. … We have been trying this for 40 years. Since 1980, the supply-side economic policy has been pushed in this country.

–Rep. Tim Ryan (D–OH), We Need to Modernize Our Industrial Policy, House Floor, November 30, 2018

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