Skip to content

Is GOP Really Considering a Federal Shutdown?

Almost anyone who has been involved with the federal budget for a while has strong memories of House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) saying repeatedly in 1995 that the newly elected Republican majority was prepared to shut down the government to buck the Clinton administration and get its way with the budget.

[IMGCAP(1)]Kasich’s big line — that he doubted anyone would even notice whether federal departments were forced to shut their doors — was a great sound bite; it clearly implied that much of Washington’s work was of so little value that no one would, or should, care if it just stopped. It was also the kind of John Wayne bravado that Americans seem to like in their politicians. Initially it played very well.

Unfortunately for Kasich and the others most responsible for the shutdown strategy — Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) — many Americans did notice when the confrontations in late 1995 and early 1996 led to two government shutdowns, and they didn’t like it at all.

People who had made reservations a year or more in advance to camp at the national parks were beyond furious when they couldn’t enter because the gates were closed. Government contractors howled when there was no one to process invoices, write checks or sign contracts, and they warned that layoffs were imminent if the situation didn’t quickly change. While “essential” federal services continued to be provided during the government shutdowns, many critical day-to-day services ceased and the anger over that was unremitting.

The political consequences for the GOP were so disastrous that the phrase “government shutdown” has barely been uttered in polite company for the past 15 years.

Until now, that is. Prominent Republicans — including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), a vice chairwoman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Gingrich — are again talking favorably about a government shutdown. They say the GOP should use the budget process to force its preferences on the Obama administration if it gains a Congressional majority in November.

In some respects, this is hard to imagine. Not only were the shutdowns a political disaster for the Republicans, they were also expensive for taxpayers. Repeatedly planning to shut down government departments and then actually locking the doors cost money that wouldn’t otherwise be spent. In other words — and very ironically from a federal budget perspective — government shutdowns increase the immediate deficit and are almost the classic definition of waste, fraud and abuse.

Shutdowns also take a toll on businesses near federal facilities across the country when government employees and contractors are told not to come to work because they then spend less on everything from gasoline to lunches to venti, skim, caramel, no-whip lattes.

There will again be unnecessary taxpayer costs and a higher deficit if a shutdown occurs next year, but that didn’t stop the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. In spite of what will be a slew of analyses and warnings about the resulting additional federal spending, it likely won’t be much of a disincentive this time either.

What may be different is the politics of shutdowns. Democrats and Republicans are much further apart than they were 15 years ago, and that could make compromise more difficult. It may also be far more difficult for Republicans to oppose shutdowns or insist on compromise because they could (or perhaps absolutely will) be threatened with an immediate primary challenge for the 2012 elections if they do so.

GOP Congressional leaders may also believe they’ve learned from the mistakes of 1995 and 1996 and know how to avoid being blamed this time around. In addition, the politics of obstruction seems to be more firmly entrenched as an acceptable political strategy in 2010 than it was in 1995. As a result, a shutdown in 2011 could last longer than the relatively short ones that occurred last time.

But there are reasons to believe that a government shutdown in 2011 would be just as politically disastrous for Congressional Republicans as before. A shutdown might be great for the GOP base, but it could just as easily turn off the independent voters who are far more critical to election success today than they were in the 1990s.

Today’s GOP doesn’t have the charismatic equivalent of Gingrich and Kasich, and even Gingrich and Kasich were handed their heads, politically speaking, when the last shutdowns occurred. The campers, contractors and federal service users who were angry last time will be just as angry this time. In addition, both sides learned lessons in 1995 and 1996, and Leon Panetta, who as chief of staff played a prominent role in guiding President Bill Clinton through the last shutdowns, is part of the Obama administration.

Given the history, the question is whether the talk about a shutdown is just a GOP ploy to energize its base before the 2010 election or a strategy under serious consideration. But even if it is a ploy, you have to ask whether, given the current political environment, such a prominent election-year pledge on a very emotional issue can be avoided later.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”