After six weeks or so of stalling, it appears that the federal government will “shut down” at midnight on Friday. It’s déjà vu for some of us who make our living as public servants. Given that the fiscal clock runs out in twenty four hours, it’s unlikely that some acceptable continuing resolution or fiscal year 2011 appropriation bill will somehow emerge, pass both houses of Congress and get signed into law so quickly. Which leaves us pondering really the imponderable: how long will it last this time?
Some think that it will be over by Monday morning, as this has happened in the past. The theory goes something like this: Republicans need to shutdown the government to satisfy the Tea Party, but once the government is actually shutdown, the base is miraculously satisfied enough that the House, Senate and the White House can agree on a bill that will win enough grudging support to bring government back to life by Monday morning. Except for possibly canceling the Cherry Blossom parade, the impact would not be felt in any meaningful way until Monday anyhow. Those of us with longer memories remember the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and see House Republicans this time in an even ornerier mood than then, so for us it’s best to husband cash and to try not to panic.
One thing I am confident about: Republicans will come to rue their “my way or the highway” high stakes brinkmanship. It does make the Tea Party and conservative base happy, because Republicans are a party of that believes in sadism for anyone not like them. But the fact remains the House is not the entirety of Congress and the President is a Democrat. No one side gets everything. It has never been this way in the past. A shutdown of any length is not going to change this fact. Moreover, poll after poll shows the public having a bad case of buyers’ remorse from the 2010 election. The longer a shutdown goes on, the steeper the political price that Republicans will pay. Those less motivated by ideology can see that the political winds have already shifted.
If Democrats have trouble governing because they devolve into too many factions, Republicans have trouble governing because they are too united and have no sense of proportion. Taking no prisoners may make them feel good for a while, but it wins them no new political support. As evident in Wisconsin and elsewhere, mainstream America is aghast by the current Republican overreach. They elected Republicans on the hope that they would help grow the economy and jobs. Jobs seem to be the last thing on their agenda. Instead they are hopelessly entangled in causes that the public does not care about. Defunding Planned Parenthood and bringing the government to a halt is more important than creating jobs?
What this shutdown will show, if it lasts for more than a week, is exactly what Republicans fear most: the value of government. It is one thing to furlough a relatively highly paid civil servant like me. It’s another thing to put America’s soldiers on half pay, most of who are already living from paycheck to paycheck. These people comprise a significant portion of their base; they are the last people they should be pissing off. But that’s just the start of it. Tell Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer that their income tax refund, which they really need, will join a growing backlog of claims. Senior citizens vote disproportionately for Republicans, but if they need to file for Social Security, or try to claim a disability benefit, they will be out of luck. Then there are all our national parks that will be shuttered. It’s going to be like the Iran Hostage crisis. The media will cover it 24/7. “It’s Day 11 of the government shutdown and Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Camden, New Jersey are here at the gates of Yellowstone Park, furious that they cannot visit the park they had long planned to see.” Camera crews will be queued in front of the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument and Yellowstone Park as the 80,000 visitors a day trying to use our national parks cannot. It’s going to be terrible PR.
Who will they hold to blame? A party that already went more than half way to accommodate Republican demands? Or a party that won’t budge one inch from a hard-line position on both deep spending cuts in discretionary spending and who insist on tilting at windmills by cutting programs like Head Start, programs Americans overwhelmingly approve of? It’s not hard to see who will get the blame, and from the headwinds in Wisconsin and elsewhere the public will echo the same theme: Republicans have no sense of proportion and are being completely unreasonable. The only question will be how much damage Republicans will choose to inflict on their brand before they move toward actual compromise. If the Tea Party has its way, their miscalculations will quickly put Democrats back in charge of Congress and the White House in 2012 as well as render their whole movement as obsolete as Glenn Beck’s soon to be canceled TV show.
Meanwhile, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more it hurts independent businesses, the states and the private sector, those Republicans claim to care about. The federal contractors they champion who live off the federal dole will start to lay off workers and find their profits sinking. The hotels, restaurants and other service providers who cater to those who enjoy our national parks will find themselves in increasingly greater financial distress. The states, which depend on federal revenue sharing to shore up their Medicaid expenses, will have to pay for these services out of pocket when they are already financially stretched. Tourists planning that trip to France will not be happy when they find that all but emergency passports are nonessential services but their pre-purchased airline tickets are nonrefundable. A sustained shutdown is a great way to slow down our economic recovery just when it is gaining traction. In addition to about 800,000 federal employees with no incomes, many more will also feel the pain. The unemployment rate is likely to jump if it goes on for several weeks. Economic pain will spread more every week it endures as all those who support these services lose business and employment.
A shutdown of any sustained length will simply boomerang against Republicans. The longer it goes on the more damage it will do to their brand. Ironically, a shutdown is a trap of their own making, which is wholly preventable. A smarter political party would be making measured moves toward implementing their agenda by finding issues that resonate with Main Street America so they can build their majorities. They would not be jumping into perilous waters, such as proposing massive changes to Medicare and Medicaid which have no chance of becoming law but simply show them as being obstinate.
If we must have a shutdown for Republicans to learn this lesson once again, well, I guess bring it on. John Boehner must be suffering from long term memory loss to allow this to happen to his party, given that he witnessed what happened the last time.
To quote Forrest Gump: Stupid is as stupid does. Blind and reckless ideology will be the Republican Party’s undoing one more time. The good news for Republicans: voters have no sense of collective memory, so they will probably put them back into power again before too long. Then the same pointless cycle can play out until our great republic finally devolves into chaos and dust.