How to Shut Down the Government

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At some point, the Obama administration will run out of cuts that it can live with, and the Republican House will have to decide whether to shut down the government by refusing to vote for ongoing continuing resolutions. The decision will be easy: Either shut down or shut up! There is no way the GOP can have any ongoing leverage if it refuses to close things down once Obama says no to further budget cuts.

The question is: How can the Republicans shut down the government without suffering the same defeat that President Clinton inflicted on them in 1995 and 1996?

A total government shutdown is like a strike in a labor dispute. The idea is to punish the public until it forces management (in this case, the Democrats) to give in. In any strike, the key to winning public sympathy and support is to articulate clearly one’s demands and to formulate them so that they elicit a positive response.

The central problem confronting the Republicans is that they seek a panoply of cuts ranging all across the federal budget. Their desired $61 billion of reductions ($100 billion annualized) go into practically every area of discretionary spending. There is no way to describe them in a sound bite.

And, when they cannot tell voters what the cuts are about, the electorate always imagines the worst. People assume the GOP is cutting Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, Head Start and every other popular program. Republicans, helpless to describe what they are really cutting (because the cuts are so pluralistic), can only be defensive. Inevitably, the debate centers around numbers ($61 billion in cuts) rather than any substantive description of the cuts themselves.

To avoid this pitfall, Republicans should not simply shut down the government to achieve the multiple cuts in their proffered package of $61 billion in reductions. They need to scrap that agenda after the negotiations fail. Such a broad-based package of cuts is fine for negotiations, but it makes a poor message when the actual shutdown comes.

Instead, Republicans must do the opposite: concentrate their cuts on two or three vulnerable programs or agencies, while leaving all the others totally untouched. Such a strategy will let the party explain its cuts and phrase them in a broadly popular way.

For example, the federal government spends $40 billion a year on highway construction.

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  • Steve

    This is crazy. You're here talking about how the Republicans need to approach reducing the budget by $61B for 2011 when we are borrowing in excess of $100B per month. Keep in mind that we're already half way through FY2011 — congress SHOULD be working on FY2012!

    At this rate, congress won't be in a position to negotiate the FY2012 reductions to "bring things into control" until this time next year. We may not have that type of time anymore. This is not an exaggeration. US Government Spending as Percent of GDP is up to 44%. Meanwhile, tax revenue has been terrible, as illustrated in data available in Wikipedia and theObama 2011 budget. The 2010 estimated tax collection was only $2.2T. While the administration expects $300B more this year, it’s not clear that anything is going on that would increase tax collection. Given the strength of the dollar and the vulnerability of the economy to stability in nations with oil, the US economy may contract even with inflation this year. We don't know how much the government will be able to collect in taxes for 2011 (or for that matter what the actual 2010 numbers ended up). Congress needs to set a budget that stops borrowing and the administration needs to manage within that budget. Period.

    Social welfare benefits increased by over $500B the past two years. Meanwhile, federal employment has increased by over 230,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession, the majority of which occurred under the Obama administration. And if that isn't enough, the Obama budget recommendation included around 15,000 more Federal jobs. Bringing those two areas along — welfare benefits and Federal staffing — to 2008 levels along should generate $600B in savings alone.

    It shouldn't be hard to significantly reduced the debt requirements very quickly. The administration and congress need to do the job we pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to do — make the tough decisions that run the country with a reasonable budget while protecting our rights.

  • Mach1Duck

    The citizens of this country could shut down the government by not spending except for essentials. The banks could not issue faith money (money backed by nothing) and the politicians would not have faith money to spend.

  • Morning Quickie

    Why are the democrats blaming women for the government shut down?

    They ignore our issues for years but suddenly women’s rights are important enough to shut down the government. They should stop hiding behind our petticoats!