Did President Barack Obama Shut Down the Government to ‘Force Obamacare’ in 2013?
On December 29, 2018, a Facebook user posted a status update claiming that a federal shutdown over border wall funding was similar to one in 2013 — and it was purportedly initiated by President Barack Obama:
This was nearly identical to a December 22, 2018 post shared hundreds of thousands of times. The version above (which was also heavily shared) read:
Obama , Shut the Government down for 17 days, in 2013, to force Obamacare! Just a friendly reminder! #BuildTheWall
The post made reference to a federal government shutdown, which began on December 22, 2018 and continued into January 2019. On December 11, 2018, the New York Times reported increasing and public hostilities leading toward federal gridlock over U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence that his campaign promise of a border wall be funded (despite the fact that a border wall already exists):
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, seated on couches flanking Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, took issue with the president’s position and his false assertions about the wall in front of a phalanx of news cameras, imploring him repeatedly to continue the tense conversation without reporters present. But Mr. Trump insisted on a conspicuous clash that undercut Republican congressional leaders and his own staff working to avoid a shutdown at all costs, or at least to ensure that Democrats would shoulder the blame for such a result.
“If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government — this country needs border security,” Mr. Trump declared as the testy back and forth unfolded, and Mr. Schumer reminded the president repeatedly that he had called several times for a shutdown, appearing to goad him into taking responsibility.
The New York Times quoted an exchange between Schumer and President Trump about a then-impending suspension of federal government operations, adding commentary from Democrat leaders following the meeting. In the exchange, President Trump stated explicitly that he was shutting the government down:
“You want to know something?” Mr. Trump finally said, exasperated. “I’ll tell you what: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”
“I will take the mantle,” Mr. Trump went on. “I will be the one to shut it down — I’m not going to blame you for it.”
…Outside the West Wing after the meeting, Mr. Schumer said Mr. Trump had thrown a “temper tantrum” over the wall, later telling reporters, “You heard the president: He wants a shutdown.”
Republican leaders were also quoted on the prospect of a shutdown which had at that point not yet come to pass:
“I hope that’s not where we end up,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters. “It was a rather spirited meeting we all watched, but I’d still like to see a smooth ending here.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said, “My experience has been that shutdowns don’t help anybody.”
Personal finance site TheBalance.com published a play-by-play of the lead-up to the 2018-2019 federal government shutdown:
On December 11, 2018, Democratic Congressional leaders met with President Trump. The meeting’s goal was to negotiate key budget points and avoid a shutdown. Trump reiterated his threat to shut down the government if Democrats didn’t include $5 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But Democrats say the wall would be ineffective. They offered $1.3 billion to continue current border-security funding. It includes border fencing, levee walls, and technology but not a concrete wall.
On December 18 , the Trump said he would compromise on receiving the full $5.7 billion to avoid a shutdown. On December 19, 2018, the Senate approved an extension of current spending until February 8, 2019.
But then Trump changed course, saying he wouldn’t sign a bill without $5.7 billion for the wall. On December 20, 2018, the House of Representatives passed a bill that included funding to maintain existing barriers. Senate leaders tried to renegotiate and pass a new spending bill. At 7 p.m. eastern time it became clear that was not going to happen.
On December 23 , the Trump administration signaled it would accept a package that included $2.5 billion in wall funding. Democrats argue that the administration has only spent 6 percent of the $1.7 billion already allocated. They also maintain that a concrete wall is ineffective and wasteful. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation agrees. It says the money would be better spent on technology and agents to prevent illegal crossings. It also advocates more enforcement to apprehend immigrants who overstay their visas.
By all accounts, Trump favored a full shutdown of the federal government for as long as it took to secure $5.7 billion in funding to construct a border wall. According to social media rumors like the Facebook post referenced here, Trump’s actions were identical to a political strategy purportedly employed by Barack Obama in 2013 to pass the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
After describing a shutdown in January 2018 (not to be confused with the shutdown from December 2018 into January 2019) and an averted shutdown in April 2017, the piece turned to the “Obamacare” shutdown in October 2013. That shutdown was caused when the House and Senate sparred over bills including and failing to include clauses relating to a health insurance mandate:
The government shutdown began on October 1, 2013. The Republican-controlled House submitted a continuing resolution without administrative funds for Obamacare. The Senate rejected the bill and sent one back that included Obamacare. The House ignored that bill. It sent one back that delayed the mandate that everyone should buy health insurance. It also deleted the subsidies for Congress and their staffers. The Senate ignored that bill, and the government shut down.
Ironically, the shutdown did not stop the rollout of Obamacare. That’s because 85 percent of its funding is part of the mandatory budget, just like Social Security and Medicare. It was already authorized by the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The Department of Health and Human Services had already sent out the funds needed to launch the health insurance exchanges.
Posts on social media heavily implied or said outright that Presidents Obama and Trump each used federal government shutdowns to ensure that their favored policies were funded, in a classic case of whataboutism.
But as is often the case, the comparison was specious. As mentioned, Trump emphasized his willingness to leverage a government shutdown to force funding for a wall, telling Sen. Chuck Schumer he was “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
News articles from September and October 2013 described different circumstances, primarily reluctance across the political spectrum to suspend federal operations:
In the hours leading up to the deadline, House Republican leaders won approval, in a vote of 228 to 201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance. The House proposal would deny federal subsidies to members of Congress, Capitol Hill staff, executive branch political appointees, White House staff, and the president and vice president, who would be forced to buy their health coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance exchanges.
But 57 minutes later, and with almost no debate, the Senate killed the House health care provisions and sent the stopgap spending bill right back, free of policy prescriptions. Earlier in the day, the Senate had taken less than 25 minutes to convene and dispose of a weekend budget proposal by the House Republicans … The federal government was then left essentially to run out of money at midnight, the end of the fiscal year, although the president signed a measure late Monday that would allow members of the military to continue to be paid.
“You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job,” Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room as the clock ticked to midnight.
Mr. Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, but they spoke for less than 10 minutes, without any sign of progress.
The coverage provided myriad examples of Republican infighting over that shutdown, primarily hinging on the effects that “brinkmanship” posed to Republican lawmakers with shorter tenure:
The House’s most ardent conservatives were resigned to seeing through their war on the health care law to its inevitable conclusion, a shutdown that could test voters’ patience with Republican brinkmanship.
Cracks in the party were opening into fissures of frustration.
“You have this group that keeps saying somehow if you’re not with them, you’re for Obamacare,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California. “If you’re not with exactly their plan, exactly what they want to do, then you’re somehow for Obamacare, and it’s just getting a little old.”
“It’s moronic to shut down the government over this,” he continued … House leaders would have none of [further negotiations], again demanding a significant hit to the health law as a price for keeping the government open.
In one of their final moves, House Republicans attached language to a government funding bill that would delay the mandate that individuals obtain health insurance and would force members of Congress, their staffs and White House staff members to buy their health insurance on the new exchanges without any government subsidies … Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said junior staff members were “being used as a sacrifice” for a political gambit, driven by Republican hard-liners in the Senate like Ted Cruz of Texas, that will go nowhere.
“They locked themselves into this situation, the dead end that Ted Cruz created,” Mr. King said.
In recent years, Republican leaders have enthusiastically blamed one another for the 2013 shutdown. In 2016, former Speaker John Boehner lashed out at Ted Cruz over his role in the 2013 shutdown:
Never was the rift between the [Boehner and Cruz] so open than during the 2013 government shutdown.
The Texas senator was able to marshal conservatives in the House against Boehner’s carefully crafted attempts to reopen the government—at one point infamously meeting with them at a Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill to plot creative ways to insert a measure to defund Obamacare into one of the deals to reopen the government (never mind that such a proposal was DOA on President Obama’s desk).
In September 2015, Boehner revisited the tumultuous shutdown period in an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation, following the Ohio Republican’s retirement announcement.
“The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there, you know, spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean this whole notion that we’re going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013 — this plan never had a chance,” Boehner said.
In Texas, Cruz’s home state, the Dallas Morning News refuted his assertions that he bore no responsibility for the 2013 shutdown. Once again, Cruz’s fellow Republicans primarily pointed their fingers at him as a proponent of using a federal shutdown as leverage in lieu of legislative support.
The article also noted that Cruz’s push for a shutdown was aimed at defunding Obamacare, not blocking its passage:
To hear Sen. Ted Cruz tell it, he deserves no blame for the 2013 government shutdown that cost the U.S. economy $24 billion … The assertion doesn’t match the historical record … while Cruz’s stance caused dismay and allegations of revisionism, he has always maintained that Democrats bore responsibility for the 16-day shutdown — along with GOP congressional leaders who lacked the backbone to back him up in the crusade to defund Obamacare.
The episode remains a key moment in Cruz’s five-year Senate career, elevating his status among tea partiers and propelling his 2016 presidential bid. He alluded to it often during the primaries, reminding voters that none of his White House rivals had fought as hard in Washington for their agenda.
Yet he has always denied responsibility for the shutdown, even in the run-up, at its height, and in the days afterward, as other Republicans openly fumed at him for pushing the tactic.
Cruz spent the summer of 2013 promoting the idea that the fight to defund Obamacare was worth the risk of shutdown, and stirring public pressure on GOP leaders.
“A lot of Republicans are scared about being beaten up by President Obama for wanting to shut down the government,” he told a hotel ballroom of young conservatives that July.
It was one of many times he publicly promoted the threat of a shutdown in the crusade against Obamacare.
On Sept. 24 and 25 , he staged a 21-hour filibuster-like talkathon to dramatize his push.
“We should not shut down the government. We should fund every bit of the government, every aspect of the government, 100 percent of the government except for Obamacare. That is what the House of Representatives did. The House of Representatives — 232 Members of the House, including 2 Democrats — voted to fund every bit of the Federal Government, 100 percent of it, except for Obamacare,” he said at one point in his overnight marathon.
His insistence that he didn’t want a shutdown struck his critics then and now as disingenuous.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called it a “dumb idea” to risk a shutdown. House Speaker John Boehner rejected the tactic and later called Cruz a “jackass” for pursuing it.
Likewise, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, then the minority leader, and his deputy, Texas’ own John Cornyn, warned that trying to use a must-pass budget to kill Obamacare was a losing cause.
“There’s no end result other than shutting the government down, for which Republicans are going to be blamed,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said after a meeting with Cruz, shortly before the shutdown. “We’re in the minority. We have to find a way of standing up for our principles without immolating ourselves in front of everybody, when we don’t have the votes to do it.”
In October 2013, Nunes again blamed Cruz for what he described as a hollow strategy:
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California’s Central Valley, is generally considered a conservative. He says the 30 or so House Tea Party members who frequently vote against House Speaker John Boehner and have carried Cruz’s flag in the House are “lemmings. They’re followers.”
He says the speaker has acquiesced to their strategy.
“We’re this far, so you have to let it play out,” he says. “I mean, we’ve already shut the government down … and now you have to, I think, keep up with this Ted Cruz lemming strategy. It’s got to move forward.”
But Nunes isn’t convinced there really is a strategy.
“Now, we’re letting these guys — this lemming crew — play out their hand,” he says. “Now, they’re kind of playing with no cards in their hand. But they don’t know that yet.”
Both President Obama and Boehner were repeatedly quoted as opposing the shutdown-as-strategy gambit in 2013, the former describing it as “entirely preventable” and the latter as “[not] some damn game.” Even before the shutdown, Cruz was largely deemed instrumental in it:
Having tried and failed to sell restive conservatives on plans to keep the government open without picking a fight over Obamacare, it appears that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is moving on to Plan C: Giving in to people like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who are insisting that any bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30  must defund Obamacare.
In December 2014, CNBC reported that Cruz “almost single-handedly persuaded House Republicans to shut down the government in 2013 – with disastrous political results” and “was a major architect of the 2013 shutdown, taken in protest of the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act” in a piece about a separate “game of Shutdown Chicken” over to Obama’s executive action on immigration at the time. In September 2015, Cruz again appeared to float the prospect of another shutdown over Planned Parenthood, appearing to criticize Boehner for his efforts to avert a shutdown:
Republicans and Democrats advanced a temporary spending measure that will keep government agencies operating at current spending levels through December 11 , by a vote of 77 to 19. The Senate is expected to give the bill, which does not cut Planned Parenthood funding, final approval … The bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up last week, was expected to pass, and fellow senators weren’t very receptive to Cruz’s complaints after the fact. Politico reports that once the measure passed, Cruz tried to get a roll-call vote, a typical courtesy, but other Republicans shouted “no.” Only Mike Lee backed Cruz’s request, and it was overruled by McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership.
Then the presidential candidate [Cruz] took to the floor to rail against the Senate leadership and share his theory for why Boehner is really stepping down as House speaker. He asserted that to avoid a shutdown, Boehner cut a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to push the continuing resolution through the House and continue funding various liberal initiatives. (Boehner and Pelosi say they have a shared interest in keeping the government open, but there’s no secret deal.)
“I believe if Speaker Boehner had done that … that he would have lost his speakership,” Cruz said. “And so what did he do? He announced that he is resigning as speaker and resigning as a member of Congress. That is unsurprising. But it also telegraphs the deal he just cut. It’s a deal to surrender and join with the Democrats. Notice he said he’s going to stay a month. He’s going to stay a month in order to join with the Democrats and fund Barack Obama’s priorities.”
In 2018 and 2019, President Donald Trump himself said that he was “proud” to usher in a shutdown to fund a border wall. By contrast, President Barack Obama was opposed to the 2013 shutdown — which was triggered by the actions of the House and Senate; almost all accounts credited Ted Cruz with engineering a shutdown in 2013, an impasse considered unwelcome by Democrats and Republicans alike.
The second claim in the Facebook posts was perhaps more relevant than the first, suggesting the that action was undertaken in 2013 to “force Obamacare.” This is clear disinformation. At the time of the 2013 shutdown, the ACA had already been established law for three years. By contrast, no such law existed to secure border wall funding as of December 2018 or January 2019.
The claims were unfounded on both points. The 2013 shutdown was primarily advanced by Cruz, as recounted by fellow Republicans in the intervening years, and the 2013 shutdown was an effort to defund an existing law, not an attempt by President Barack Obama to pass a law that already existed at the time of that shutdown.