Continuing resolutions on government funding cannot go on forever.
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.
About one-quarter of that amount is for highway repair and maintenance, necessary for safety. But the other three-quarters ($30 billion a year) are for new highways. The Republicans should zero-fund new construction and say that America needs a three-year moratorium on new highway construction. Repair and maintain what we have, but we will have to do without new federal roads for the next year to save $30 billion. It's a tradeoff, they should say, but we need deficit reduction more than we need the new roads.
Other prominent candidates for zero funding are Obama's National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund, a pork-barrel construction project ($4 billion a year), and his Build America Bonds, which provide for a federal subsidy to states and localities to pay the interest and principal on their bonds for infrastructure ($11.5 billion a year).
Together, these three programs cost us $45.5 billion a year, close to the GOP spending reduction goals. Nobody is going to bleed if they are cut, and most voters will accept the necessity of zero-funding them for at least a year and possibly for three years.
For additional political advantage, Republicans should zero-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($500 million a year) and the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities ($500 million a year).
And, for political cover, the House should propose rolling back the congressional budget to 2008 levels (saving $500 million a year).
Add in $4 billion cuts already agreed to and $6.5 just proposed by the White House, and you come to $57.5 billion — very close to the $61 billion the GOP proposed.
Then the Republicans should leave all other federal agencies intact with no cuts. They should present the Democrats with bills for continuing funding for the other agencies that are identical to those that would have passed the Senate. Then, if the Democrats choose to vote against the funding for these other agencies, it is they who will have held the country hostage and closed down the government. Republicans would be perfectly willing to keep all the other agencies open.
And, by unilaterally zero-funding the targeted agencies, Republicans will, de facto, have accomplished their budget reduction goals and be able easily to explain them to America. And who will care that these agencies are zero-funded?
The result will inevitably be a total victory for the Republican Party and for those who want to cut the budget.
Then, Republicans should take the next step and roll back Medicaid funding to 2008 levels and block-grant it to the states.