Friday, November 5, 2010

Quick Note on Shutdowns

There's been a lot of speculation about a government shutdown during the upcoming 112th Congress (or even earlier), or a default caused by a failure to raise the debt ceiling.  I've contributed to that speculation, so I figured I should point out something in partial defense of the House Republicans.

To actually go through with a shutdown (or default) would be both awful policy and awful politics.  To threaten a shutdown as part of bargaining over specific proposals is basically normal budget politics, something that both parties have employed during budget negotiations for decades.  I suppose in an ideal world no party would ever use an impending deadline that spelled doom for both sides as a negotiating tool, but in the real world of budget politics, there's nothing especially terrible about it.

I think some of the confusion about this stems back to 1995.  It's true that some crazed conservatives that year believed that it would actually strengthen their hand if the government shut down, because in their ideologically blinded opinion no one would notice or care.  I rarely say anything nice about Newt Gingrich's grasp of reality, but as far as I know he wasn't guilty of that.  Newt's mistake, from everything I've read, was that he honestly though that Bill Clinton was a weak person who would blink first rather than risk confrontation.  Newt was wrong about Clinton, and he was more basically wrong about the importance of personality in those situations compared to the importance of institutional factors, but as far as I know he did not actually want to shut down the government as a goal. 

Of course, the institutional factors that made shutdown a disaster for Republicans in 1995-1996 are still there today.  Those include the media advantages a president holds against anyone in Congress; the tendency of Americans to hate Congress; and the negotiating advantages the single president has against the Speaker who needs to keep a 250 or so Member conference on board. 

At any rate, what I really wanted to say was: there's nothing abnormally unethical or problematic about GOP threats to shut down the government or require concessions in order to get votes on a debt ceiling increase.  That's business as usual, as long as it's just threats and posturing.


  1. But there is something abnormally unethical about actually wanting a government shutdown, right? And what, again, is the reason for assuming that House Republicans don't actually want this?

    I mean, 2011 will be different than 1995. I don't think it is at all certain that the GOP would pay the political price for a shutdown today. (I'm not even convinced that it paid the price for the 1995/6 shutdown -- sure, Clinton got re-elected, but so did the GOP house majority, and the latter lasted a lot longer than the former.)

    If you want evidence for my doubt, just look at the last two years. The GOP was not punished for its uber-obstructionism (including a virtual shutdown of the judicial branch); on the contrary, it was rewarded handsomely. The rabid anti-government base of the party will surely reward them again for a government shutdown.

  2. I actually think some of those institutional factors are STRONGER against Republicans- mostly that there is a lot more innate distrust of them in the electorate (even their base seems to just be waiting for the inevitable screw-job). This bleeds over into the negotiation side, too; there is a sense that they might REALLY do this, which, while strengthening their negotiating hand, is going to weaken their political standing whenever they threaten it (hence, why so many in Republican leadership are backing off of it).

    Andrew, two notes- one, as JB explained yesterday, it's useful to consider candidate recruitment in 1996. The Dems fielded a weak crew, based on everyone's belief (during recruitment season, at least) that 1994 was the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party. That might not explain all of their failure to take back the House, but there's a lot of other factors besides just that House Republicans really weren't that unpopular after the Shutdown.

    As for who was "rewarded" last year, I might argue that the Republicans reaping the rewards were kinda incidental. I'd say it's much more that the Democrats were punished for not doing enough, and doing even their big things in an extraordinarily ugly way. 'Cause let's be clear, there were a WHOLE lot of Dems who were complicit with Republicans delaying, denigrating, and voting against everything that got through. And I could make what I feel is a strong argument that those Dems took the brunt of the damage in this election.

    I mean, don't get me wrong, the entire party was punished (when Feingold and Grayson go down, it's hard to argue it was excessive moderation), but it seems to me that it went down because it didn't get enough done, or at least couldn't make it look like it got enough done. And since a lot of Dems contributed to that, it's even a little sensible to so punish them. But either way, rewarding the Republicans was merely the vagaries of a two-party system.

  3. Jon,
    Don't forget a major reason why they were willing to shut down in 1995: 1990 (and, to a much lesser extent, 1981, 1984, and 1986) convinced the Republicans that the President always gets blamed for shutdowns. Thus, in 1995, they played hardball, thinking that winning on policy or politics were the only possible outcomes. (From these examples, they also thought shutdowns were very short)


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