Politics & Policy

Shutdowns and Spending

On the Hill, Democrats stoke fear while Republicans try to fix the budget.

When Senate Democrats expound on the alleged GOP plot to shut down the government and crash the U.S. economy by refusing the raise the federal debt limit, it’s almost as if they’ve moved beyond mere political posturing to the point where, having repeated themselves with ample frequency and vigor, they’ve actually started to believe what they’re saying.

It’s true that a number of leading conservatives and party outsiders have suggested (though not recently) that if Democrats refuse to agree to attach meaningful spending cuts to upcoming votes on a new continuing resolution and debt-ceiling increase, Republicans should refuse to cooperate and bring about a government shutdown similar to the one orchestrated by former House speaker Newt Gingrich did in 1995. But as one reporter deftly pointed out at a press conference Wednesday, the only people making any noise over a potential government shutdown today are “pundits and Democrats.”

Indeed, Democrats are holding press conferences for this very purpose. In an effort to bolster their accusations, Democratic aides distributed press packets lined with quotes from Republicans and influential conservatives under the headline: “Republicans Continue to Threaten Government Shut Down.” But most of the examples were dated November 2010, or earlier.

Democrats want to make sure that if anything goes awry in the contentious debate over federal spending, Republicans get the blame. And as far as rhetoric is concerned, they aren’t pulling any punches.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) warned that Republicans could be on the verge of committing “the single most irresponsible political action in the history of Congress.”

Sens. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who has been preaching the shutdown gospel all week, and Patty Murray (D., Wash.) spoke at length about the millions of soldiers, veterans, and elderly, handicapped, and unemployed citizens who would suffer in the event of a shutdown. “It’s playing with fire,” Schumer said. “[Republicans] are putting hundreds of millions of Americans in the middle of a political fight that they shouldn’t be in.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) went one step farther, arguing that in light of the ongoing turmoil in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, “a government shutdown . . . would be a benefit to our enemies.”

All this talk of a government shutdown from Democrats has many GOP aides shaking their heads in amusement. “Senator Schumer seems strangely preoccupied with the notion of a government shutdown,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “It is our hope that he soon realizes the only person talking about a shutdown is Senator Schumer.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) concurred: “Our goal isn’t to shut down the government, it’s to stop Washington Democrats’ ineffective ‘stimulus’ spending binge and help create jobs.”

In fact, the Democrats’ rhetorical offensive is directly related to the debate over federal spending. It’s no accident that Wednesday’s press conference coincided with the release of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to set an appropriations limit for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 (through September). 

Ryan’s plan called for cuts of $58 billion to non-defense discretionary spending and $16 billion in defense spending. It was, in effect, the opening GOP bid in the battle over the budget that will play out over the coming weeks.

Democrats wasted no time in denouncing Ryan’s plan. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said it was “unworkable” and “even more draconian than we originally anticipated.” Schumer said some of the cuts were “extreme and go overboard.” Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized the plan for not going far enough, in the sense that it fell short of the GOP’s “Pledge” to cut at least $100 billion.

With President Obama set to release his fiscal-year 2012 budget proposal on February 14, Democrats are reiterating his call for ramped-up “investment” during the State of the Union address. They proudly wheeled out Moody’s economist (and avowed Keynesian) Mark Zandi to make the case. “Government spending restraint is vital to addressing our long-term fiscal problems,” he said, lawmakers beaming behind him. “It just shouldn’t start in 2011.”

This is just the latest escalation in what is sure to be — indeed, already is — a heated back and forth between the two parties on Capitol Hill. Neither side has shown any real willingness to compromise so far. While Democrats are claiming Ryan’s plan is “unworkable,” a number of Republicans have already declared his cuts to be insufficient. Ryan himself insists that his proposal is merely a “down payment,” with steeper cuts to come when he crafts his own 2012 budget in response to the president’s.

The current continuing resolution expires on March 4, and must be extended to keep the government running for the remainder of the year. Even if lawmakers can’t come to terms in the coming weeks, neither side wants to be blamed for a government shutdown. One possible outcome is a series of short-term CR’s that would essentially force an around-the-clock deliberation over federal spending. That’s a scenario most Republicans believe favors them, if they play their cards right.

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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