According to news reports, Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to reach any sort of budget agreement before April 8, when a short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year expires.
Barring some new development, this could mean a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government.
This makes both sides very nervous. Democrats don’t want the spending spigot turned off and are worried that voters might conclude that there’s no reason to ever re-open departments such as Housing and Urban Development. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly worry that they might look unreasonable and get blamed if certain parts of the government are mothballed and voters can’t get passports or visit national parks.
Given this state of play, what’s the best strategy for fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and other advocates of smaller government?
Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Republicans should continue with short-term spending bills.
…the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year. There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed.
He’s worried that a more confrontational approach, where the GOP passes a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill, might backfire - even though any shutdown would exist solely because Senator Reid and/or President Obama refused to act.
Would a shutdown give Republicans more muscle in negotiating for cuts? …Maybe it would. But it might not. …So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown. This is a big gamble. …Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010. True enough, the political atmosphere is more favorable to serious spending reductions than it was 16 years ago. …But why take a chance?
I think Barnes is a bit off in his portrayal of what happened in 1995, as I’ve previously explained, but these are all fair points. A “shutdown” fight could be considered uncharted territory.
Keith Hennessey, a former Hill staffer and Bush Administration official, also is skeptical of a confrontational approach. Instead, he suggests that the GOP increase the pressure on Democrats by slowly increasing the amount of weekly spending cuts.
While negotiating with the President’s team and Senate Democrats, in this variant House Republicans continue to pass short-term Continuing Resolutions as long as there is not an acceptable full-year deal. In these repeated future CRs, they ratchet up the spending cuts by the paltry figure of only $100 million each week. …Under this new variant, as April 8th approaches House Republicans would pass another three week CR, one which cuts $2.1 B in its first week, $2.2 B in its second week, and $2.3 B in its third week. …Such a tiny weekly increment would be nearly impossible for Democrats to reject. And yet if continued through the end of this fiscal year, $4.5 B of discretionary spending would be cut in the final week, that of September 23rd. This strategy…poses zero additional risk for Congressional Republicans. They would maintain the high ground on spending cuts and remain on the offensive for the next six months.
There’s a lot to like about Keith’s approach. If successful, he explains, GOPers could wind up with $82 billion of cuts rather than just $61 billion.
But here’s my concern about an incremental strategy. What makes anyone think that the left will go along with short-term spending bills, regardless of whether they cut $2 billion per week, or even more?
Democrats already have agreed to $10 billion of cuts, and even though that’s very trivial when compared to total spending (akin to a couple of french fries out of a Big Mac meal), the pro-spending lobbies and their allies on Capitol Hill are balking at the thought of additional cuts. So while it might be possible to push through a couple of additional short-term spending bills, there will come a point when Democrats refuse to play ball. And when that happens, we’re back to a partial shutdown.
Here’s how constitutional lawyer James Bopp, Jr., explained the issue in a piece for the Washington Times.
A government shutdown is inevitable because President Obama will insist on it. Nothing the Republicans do, short of total capitulation, will prevent this from happening. …With a three-week extension of government funding (which included $6 billion in cuts) expiring April 8, now is the time to escalate one’s bid. Demand $12 billion in cuts the next time. And when the shutdown occurs because of an Obama veto or a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House should keep passing bills to reopen the government, coupling it with more spending cuts. …There is a fundamental contradiction in the Democrats’ shutting down the government. The Democrats are the party of government. It is like a bank robber, caught in the act, who threatens to pull the trigger on himself if arrested; what would the cop say but, “Go ahead”? The government shutdown threat defeats the Democrats own objective and is thus ultimately self-defeating, while the Republicans protect the bank depositors - the taxpayers - from the bank robber.
I think this is largely correct, particularly in that there almost certainly will be a shutdown fight. The only question is when it will happen. And if a shutdown battle is inevitable, advocates of smaller government should decide whether it’s better to have that fight sooner rather than later.
My instinct is that it would be better to fight now. GOP resolve presumably will decrease over time, particularly since the “easy” spending cuts get used up first. Moreover, it is quite likely that a strategy of short-term spending bills will complicate GOP efforts to get budget process reform in a couple of months in exchange for an increase in the debt limit.
Democrats surely don’t want the GOP to have another opportunity to restrain the size of government, so they would insist on an increase in the federal government’s borrowing authority as the price for approving whatever short-term spending bill is being considered around that time. Republicans presumably will balk at that demand. But that brings us back, once again, to a shutdown fight. Only this time, it will be complicated by demagogic assertions of a default.
So long as the final result is a smaller burden of government, there is no right or wrong answer about the process. It’s simply a question of which approach is more likely to achieve the desired outcome. I think fighting now is better than fighting later, but if the GOP chooses a strategy of short-term spending bills, I hope I’m wrong.