Government Shutdown Would be Terrible Politics for GOP

Posted on September 30, 2013 by

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There is something viscerally satisfying about the possibility of a government shut down. Consider the stated and implied conservative motivations:

  • We need to show people they can survive without their daily suckling from the federal teat
  • We need to inculcate a new sense of independence, a re-emergence of the homesteading spirit that once defined our nation
  • We need to shine a light on government excess and shutting it down may help us distinguish between essential and non-essential functions
  • We need to negotiate meaningful spending cuts, and this, along with the debt ceiling, is the most convenient tool
  • We need to show action to our constituents, who are spoiling for a fight
  • We need to get rid of Obamacare and every method is on the table for doing so

All of these, and more, make a limited kind of sense. I get it. So, while I am sympathetic to some of these goals, using a government shutdown to achieve them is short-sighted and potentially unethical.

Politically, this is an untenable situation for the Republican Party. One of the enduring lessons of modern American politics is that when Congress and the White House get into a political tussle, the President wins. This is sort of ‘government 101,’ I know, but sometimes the basics are necessary. The President’s access to media, and his ability to speak with one voice dominates the media space surrounding these kinds of showdowns. For most voters, who are detached from daily politics at this time of the electoral cycle, the media space will define the limited information they get about the showdown. Even ‘objective’ journalism requires airing the President’s perspective along with the varying views pouring out of Congress. House, Senate, Republican, Democrat, Conservative, RINO, Leadership, Rank-and-File, these are all voices that create a cacophony indecipherable to your average voter. While Barack Obama is not the political genius he thinks himself to be, he will stay disciplined and consistent on this, as will the Democrats in Congress. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a losing fight that should be avoided.

While I tire of military analogies to politics, because the stakes are almost never high enough to justify them, I cannot resist one here. Like the Light Brigade, the GOP leadership rides onward, into the Valley of Political Death. Noble? Perhaps. Futile? For certain. Pull up on the reins, Republicans, and fight a different battle from a stronger position on another day. Think more Robert E. Lee and less Lord Cardigan.

Ethically, I am troubled by this approach to governance. When we think of “governing” as connected to party attachments, we end up with showdowns and manufactured crises designed to gain partisan advantage for upcoming electoral contests. This is such a crisis and both sides are responsible. The reason we are close to a government shutdown is because government is being funded on continuing resolutions as opposed to a rational, detailed, debated, and voted upon budget. The Democrats’ budgetary behavior has been irresponsible since Barack Obama took office. Not only have the Democrats spent recklessly and foolishly, but they have done so by discarding the budgetary process. This behavior prevents the American people from understanding the amount and kind of government spending because it is so fragmented and incremental that national conversations cannot occur. This minimizes the Democrats’ accountability and maximizes their obfuscation. If we wished to measure and define “good government,” where our representatives acted in our interests as opposed only to their own, surely this would not be it.

Republicans have proven themselves to be equally troubling, at least ethically. Whether we like to admit it or not, government spending and legislation establish commitments to those being governed. While these commitments are not necessarily inviolable, they are meaningful. Past governmental actions, regardless of whether or not the GOP supported those actions, are, to a degree, relied upon by millions of people. To simply shut down government, and therefore blithely eschew those commitments, is not fair. As Jim Geraghty notes, take military families as one example. If the government shuts down, soldiers, sailors, and pilots are no longer paid, but they are required to work. Military death benefits stop. The Smithsonian Museums close. Large chunks of federal employees who are deemed ‘non-essential’ stay home. Part of me sheds few tears for a bureaucrat, who is likely overpaid to begin with, forced to struggle with a trace amount of insecurity. But these cuts will affect security guards, clerical workers, and custodial staff–not exactly the slice of people sending their kids to Sidwell Friends or the National Cathedral School.

Does this mean government can never pull back on a commitment? Of course not. Reductions in positions and benefits, however, would take place over a period of time. People could find jobs, alternative living arrangements, or sources of income. Charities could, at least in theory, begin to plan for additional needs. No matter the particulars, the process of debating these changes would give voters and constituents a chance to weigh in on what is happening. Legislators would have to cast hard votes. Accountability would happen. This is how our government ought to function.

While Democrats could clean up this process by working in the budgetary framework, Republicans could contribute by laying out clear alternatives, debating them, and allowing for votes. The House has done this, to a point, but the alternative it has chosen, to tie funding the government to Democratic priorities like health care, creates a crisis where none exists. Neither the U.S. Senate nor President Obama will support any bill that defunds or delays Obamacare and the Democrats will win any public relations battle that might ensue. Given that reality, the U.S. House’s actions are inflammatory and counter-productive.

Instead, both parties govern as if their toupees are aflame. Short-term thinking obviates long-term planning. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when we elect career politicians and party worshippers to positions of power and when we divide our government between the parties. This is one instance where we can gaze upon the wisdom of some of our Founders who understood the natures of humans and politics by seeing them inextricably bound together. As James Madison lamented in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Yes, Mr. Madison, these are not angels who lead us, nor are the people who put them there. May God have mercy upon us in spite of our collective foolishness.

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