Government shutdown lessons for the GOP
The Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate are at a budget impasse once again, which could lead to a government shutdown at the end of the month. A group of conservative and mainstream House Republicans reportedly worked out an agreement over the weekend to fund the government through October through a continuing resolution, but it appears that some far-right House Freedom Caucus members are panning the deal. A few are even arguing that a government shutdown might not be a bad idea if helps get some of their demands passed. Indeed, Donald Trump made exactly this point in his recent NBC interview. They’re almost certainly wrong.
It is true that President Biden’s spend-a-thon is out of control, adding to inflationary pressures and pushing the government towards a fiscal cliff. And Republicans need to do all they can to restrain and even cut that spending. But shutdowns tend to be a political loser for Republicans — and the country. Here’s why:
The GOP will be blamed for the shutdown. Democrats and their echo chamber in the mainstream media will blame Republicans for the shutdown — indeed, they’ve already started. News outlets will push one story after another highlighting people who are “suffering” because of the shutdown, including federal employees who will be temporarily laid off and won’t be getting paid (until later).
Of course, a few news outlets, such as Fox News and many talk radio programs, will likely be delivering a more favorable message. But public opinion will be more affected by the mainstream media, in part because the news stories will be so ubiquitous. Once the “blame the Republicans” narrative is set, there will be increasing pressure on GOP elected officials to cut their losses by agreeing to whatever deal they can get.
The Democratic Senate will oppose most GOP demands. The Senate is controlled by Democrats. Almost any budget bill or continuing resolution that moves more than a little in the Republican direction will not pass the Senate or be signed by the president — especially if Democrats perceive the shutdown is really damaging Republicans.
We saw a preview of this scenario almost exactly a decade ago. In October 2013, Republicans held the House and Democrats held the White House and the Senate. They could not agree on a budget and the government shut down from October 1-17.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) opened for enrollment at the beginning of October. Sen. Ted Cruz and others wanted Congress to defund Obamacare as part of a budget bill and Cruz argued that he could get the legislation through the Senate. That was a pipedream. There was virtually no chance a Democratic Senate would do that. The government shut down for 16 days, and the country blamed Republicans.
In addition, reporters were so focused on the shutdown, they didn’t give the Obamacare rollout disaster, with a website that was virtually useless, nearly as much attention as it deserved. And that takes us to the next point.
A shutdown takes the spotlight off other important issues. There are a number of domestic problems that are hurting Biden’s standing in the polls. One is the southern border crisis, as record numbers of immigrants cross into the country. Even Democratic mayors in large cities, such as New York City and Chicago, are complaining.
Then there’s the growing sense that people are worse off economically than when Biden took office, and the widespread concern that Biden’s age and health are affecting his ability to do the job. And, of course, there’s the indictment of Hunter Biden and the impeachment inquiry into whether Joe Biden benefited from his son’s shady deals.
But once the shutdown begins, it will immediately consume the media, and all of those issues Republicans want the public to focus on will move to the back burner.
In the end, the public will wonder why it had to happen. When it’s all over and the government is funded again, the public will wonder why, if Congress was going to come to an agreement anyway, members didn’t do it earlier and avoid all of the shutdown theater and turmoil. I have heard exactly this comment many times after a shutdown has ended.
While Republicans’ concerns over government spending are justified, government shutdowns don’t do much to address the problem. If it were a fair match between big-spending Democrats and GOP spending reductions, Republicans might have a fighting chance. But the media will be on Democrats’ side delivering one low blow after another.
Republicans should strive for all the concessions they can get, but serious spending reductions will likely have to wait until Republicans control Congress and the White House again. The only question is: Will they take advantage of that opportunity if and when it comes?
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him @MerrillMatthews.
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