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Government Shutdown: Who Wins -- or Loses?

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Is House Speaker John Boehner wilier than Newt Gingrich?

In the mid-1990s, Gingrich, then the speaker, enthusiastically charged into a budget face-off with President Clinton that led to not one but two government shutdowns. (One lasted five days; the other, 21.) Gingrich emerged wounded from the battle -- which had been waged over the GOP's calls for deep spending cuts -- and Clinton went on to win reelection in 1996; his Democrats netted nine seats in the House. The politerati's consensus since then has been that this fight was Gingrich's Waterloo, the beginning of the end for him. Now Boehner is heading into a similar tussle.

First, some background. Because Congress did not approve its appropriations bills last year -- bad, Congress, bad -- the federal government is being financed by one big cover-it-all spending measure called a continuing resolution, which funds the government at current levels. But the CR that was passed last fall had an expiration date: March 4, 2011. If no spending bill is approved by then, there will be no money for non-essential federal government services.

When this happened during the Clinton-Gingrich fight, the consequences were far-reaching. A recent Congressional Research Service report listed several examples:

- New patients were not accepted for research programs at the National Institutes of Health.

- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped their disease surveillance programs.

- Toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites was halted.

- Recruitment and testing of law enforcement officers (including 400 border patrol agents) was delayed.

- Almost 400 national parks were closed, as were national museums and monuments.

- Visa and passport applications went unprocessed. (U.S. tourist industries and airlines lost millions of dollars.)

- Various veterans services were curtailed.

Plenty of other government services came to a grinding halt. The processing of Social Security and Medicare checks were delayed. All in all, the shutdown was not welcomed by most of the public. And Gingrich was left holding the bag. If a shutdown occurs at the end of next week, who'll get the blame -- or credit?

Last week, Boehner took a stance that could lead to such a suspension. Here's why: His House Republicans this past weekend passed a new continuing resolution with $61 billion in dramatic spending cuts affecting health, environmental, education, law enforcement, and worker and consumer safety programs. In response to these cuts, the Democrats in control of the Senate have said, fuggedaboutit. Meaning they will not rubber-stamp the House Republicans' spending bill. Consequently, the two sides have to work out a deal. But the March 4 deadline looms, and this week -- wouldn't you know! -- Congress is not in session. That leaves five days the following week to sort this out. Otherwise, ka-boom!

What would be the reasonable course of action in a situation like this? The answer is obvious: pass a short extension of the current continuing resolution -- say, for a few weeks -- to cover the time needed to hammer out a compromise between the House GOPers and Senate Democrats. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has done just that, proposing a stopgap bill that would fund the government at current levels until the end of March. Boehner, though, has declared he won't accept a temporary measure unless it includes spending cuts. So if he sticks to that extreme position and he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don't reach a compromise by March 4, much of the federal government will shut down.

In such a scenario, it would seem that Boehner would deserve most of the culpability. Just like Gingrich. But would Boehner pay the same price?

The political dynamics are different this time. And Boehner is playing to two audiences that each is looking for a different show. Much of the tea party crowd -- in and out of Congress -- would cheer a government shutdown. These folks see the federal government as the enemy. They'd be delighted to strangle it, even if only for a few days. Yet independent voters, whom both parties need to court, would probably not be as happy. These people usually want their representatives in Washington to make the system work. They aren't looking for showdowns or games of chicken. By forcing a shutdown, Boehner can appease his right -- but at the cost of potentially alienating the middle.

Of course, if a shutdown comes, Boehner will try to blame it on Democrats and President Obama, claiming that their unwillingness to accept spending cuts created the problem. He'll bash them for not listening to the people, and he'll depict himself as a champion of principle. If it comes to this, it will be the climax of the GOP's just-say-no strategy of the past two years.

Capitol Hill Democrats say Boehner is riding the Overreach Express and risks coming across more as a tea party bomb-thrower than as a responsible legislator. At least, that's their hope. It will certainly take some deft maneuvering for Boehner to cause a shutdown, accuse the Democrats, and be hailed as a spending-cut hero of the republic. But it's hard to know where the American public is these days. It generally detests overall government spending, but opposes many of the individual cuts the Republicans have passed. And though the American electorate sent a band of conservative ideologues to Washington this past November, many Americans fancy the notion of bipartisan cooperation. It's no sure bet that the public will embrace a politician who throws this switch.

Boehner might be the player who has the most to lose. Obama and the Senate Democrats are already viewed as politicians who consider government a positive force that can be used to resolve the nation's problems. If they draw a line against severe GOP cuts and ask for more time to forge a compromise, that's hardly a news story. But Boehner, who is still a new figure on the scene, has benefited by not being regarded as an ideologue. If he refuses to back a measure that keeps the government functioning while the politicians look for a bipartisan deal, he could end up becoming identified as an I-know-best, anti-government extremist. That will, no doubt, be a badge of honor in certain circles. But it may not go over well beyond those quarters.

Boehner has a choice: reasonableness or ideology. In 1996, Gingrich chose the latter and crashed. At that time, Boehner was in his third term as a House member. The next two weeks will show what lessons he learned -- if any.

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19 Comments

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m2s1c7j4

Enough is enough on Capital Hill, you don't see them cutting their pay or their pay raise that they took this year that was voted on several years ago, nor did you see them work this past week to come in agreement for the budget, no they had vacation, must be nice while the rest of the citizens are trying to coupe with rising gas prices, food, dr bills, mortgage, potential loss of their homes, while congress republicans and democrats enjoy life. Why can't they ever pass a budget on time, they haven't been able to pass a budget on time in years and they know when it is due, if we held them accountable they would all be fired. The need to start looking at wasteful spending like BRAC, where is the savings..there are none, all they do is relocate facilities build at the new areas and impact areas where they relocate impeding with increase of traffic, congestion, so all basically they do is shift where people live, impacting schools who are dealing with shortage of teachers due to cutbacks in States larger classroom sizes where learning becomes an issue. They need to stop contracting out, since that cost billions of dollars since the government doesn't know how to write contracts to hire appropriately and the contractors come back and get paid more for whatever changes or whatever the government doesn't do right. I can go on and on, but bottom line if we want to cleanup the deficiet than congress look at your pay, BRAC's, contractor contracts and we can save. Work for the people......no for your greed.

February 26 2011 at 6:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
wiseppl

It would be a tragic mistake to let the Govt. shut down.Not only would it affect all social security recepients but it will finally show just how out of touch the House and Senate are. They don't care about the middle class or low-income,all they care about is how good or bad they look to their rich supporters. They have shown time and time again just how out of touch they are e.g.Health Care bill that they are not governed by,and then with a possible shutdown of Government looming in the very near future they are not even in session this week. What does that tell you? It tells you they don't care. Term limits and Lobbyist controls should be initiated immediately!!!!!

February 26 2011 at 1:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
muskiedeer

Every president in the last 50 years have not even close got the spending undercontrol, several economist say the start of the downturn was under clinton while his tax increases were at its highest, statistically it is proven time and time again tax rate and government spending is at low levels the economy will climb but as the economy climbs another entitlement program pops up so another tax and starts it downward spiral. It in history books if you care to it up. Bush obama clinton none of them had the courage to explain to the public we are broke created too many programs costing too much money taxing too much from the people and worse more from the buisnesses. TOO MUCH we are on the brink of colapse loosing everthing we have or will have

February 24 2011 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan Curran

Well, I was around for the first 2 shutdowns and this sucked. I still had to work, without pay. Try making a house payment, when you don't have the funds to due so. I, personally am sick and tired of the political shannegans both sides like to play. It's time to think about the people that they affect and not about pointing fingers or going "nanee nanee nanna, I win, you loose." In my opinion, nobody wins, the people loose! It is time for the people of this country to revolt against this bureaucratic bumbling bunch of idiots. When the hell are these idiots going to stop the games and get real about getting this country back on track. Damn, watching a bunch of ants work throughout the day is more productive then what goes on the the so called congress and senate. It's tea party time!

February 24 2011 at 8:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Rogell

That's easy - the person or group who has control over the purse strings or finances; that is, the legislative branch of government or House of Representatives. More specifically, the speaker of the house...

February 24 2011 at 5:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
patdelb4

If Democrats and the president would have done their jobs and had a budget and stopped the spending and got the job growth going instead of the Health Care bill we would be in better shape today along with no bailouts of any company.
Now the Republicans are having to do what the Democrats failed to do the past 4 years.
Of course the Republicans are called the bad guys because nobody likes change or tightening up the budget strings to get control of the free spending which has been done the last 2 years.
We are in for the long haul for the next 2 years when we can bid Obama good bye and hope that we get a LEADER not a PUPPET.

February 24 2011 at 4:41 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to patdelb4's comment
muskiedeer

Bush nor Obama can be all at fault its a downward trend that started years and years ago overindulgence and dependency from all and sheer lazyness and lack of responsibility on all we all need the blame and the cuts should be steep and hard coming down will be hard but we can build it back. and teach goveernment about the constitution and the frame work of our founders left us it is time to go back and start over or we are screwed left right and center the tank is dry and turning to dust.

February 24 2011 at 9:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
onefellswoop17

It's not that hard "to know where the American public is these days." There is plenty of polling on issue priorities. And the debt and deficit usually pull in anywhere from the single digits to the mid teens as Americans' #1 priority for Congress (peaking at 25%). The overwhelming #1 priority is the economy, and Republicans are going to have a hard time selling that cutting spending (aka money being pumped into the economy that would otherwise not be there) as beneficial to the state of our economy.

The numbers are there, and it would be nice if journalists would take a look at them from time to time (see Public Option)

February 23 2011 at 5:34 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
oldengineera2

I have a vision of responsible government in mind that could accommodate a very modest 2% trim in spending without a single grandma dying or baby starving as a result. How is it that Corn cannot conceive of a responsible government? Is it due to studying the record of government reliability and responsibility?

February 22 2011 at 10:31 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

Mr. Corn, are you seriously suggesting that Democrats would shut the government down in preference to a mere 2% trim of Obama's outlandish $3.69 Trillion budget wish list? If so, we are further gone than I had hoped.

February 22 2011 at 10:18 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment
namingway2

Are you seriously suggestion that the Republicans would shut the government down to mandate a mere 2% trim to Obama's budget? If so, we are further gone than I have hoped.

February 23 2011 at 11:19 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
wgdisk

Being one who depends on my "entitlement" social security check for my month to month income, my first phone call following a government shutdown will be to a bankruptcey attorney. Then someone besides me will get absolutely nothing.

February 22 2011 at 10:59 AM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply

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