from Renewing America

The Government Shutdown: Tell Me How This Ends

National Park Service employee Richard Trott places a sign barring visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on October 1, 2013 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

October 1, 2013

National Park Service employee Richard Trott places a sign barring visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on October 1, 2013 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Now that the government has actually shut down, the conventional wisdom is that it will be fairly short. The House Republicans, realizing they have overplayed their hand and are on the wrong side of public opinion, will back down and accept a clean, short-term continuing resolution to get the government back to work. I am not so optimistic.

Here’s why. Ask yourself this simple question: which side now has more to lose from the government being shuttered? Answer: not the Republicans.

First, take a look at the list of government agencies that will be most affected by the shutdown. Top of the list is the Environmental Protection Agency, which will see more than 90 percent of its staff furloughed. To the GOP, the EPA is the motherlode of “job-killing regulations.” Also hit hard will be the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Food and Drug Administration. I can hear the Republicans wailing and gnashing their teeth already. Or perhaps the GOP will rally to rescue three of the other hard-hit agencies that Texas governor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry promised to eliminate – the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, and, oops, a third one I can't remember --maybe it was the Department of Energy.

The way the government defines “essential services” that must continue, most of the government workers who will remain on the job are in law enforcement agencies of one sort or another – Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the uniformed military. The last minute decision by Senate Democrats and President Obama to accept a Republican bill to continue paying soldiers during the shutdown was certainly the proper thing to do, but will have the effect of eliminating what could have been a major source of pressure on the Republicans to capitulate, since so many military bases are in GOP districts.

That raises the second reason why Democrats are going to feel more pain: the majority of the federal workers directly affected by the shutdown are in Democratic-held districts. Some 56 percent of full-time federal workers live in states carried by President Obama in 2012, and the largest concentrations are in the most solidly Democratic states such as the District of Columbia, Maryland, and California. The exceptions are Texas, which is staunchly Republican, and Virginia, a swing state won by the president in 2012 (though most government workers are in the strongly Democratic northeast corner of the state).

The idea, therefore, that House Republicans will be feeling the heat from their districts is probably wrong. Most of the government services that matter in those places will continue – postal delivery, social security checks, food stamps, veterans’ hospitals. Some are citing polls showing that only 26 percent of voters approve of how the congressional Republicans handled the negotiations prior to the shutdown. But considering that House Republicans collectively won just 49 percent of the popular vote in 2012, that 26 percent probably means that a majority of their supporters actually favors the hardball tactics. Regardless, all but a handful of House Republicans represent safe seats with no plausible Democratic challengers. As GOP operative John Feehery told the Washington Post: “I don’t think anyone’s going to lose their seat because they stood up to Barack Obama.”

All this means that of the two parties, the Democrats are likely to feel greater political pressure to compromise. But they can’t, and won’t, because they have refused on principle to accept that the new health care law should be on the table in negotiations over continued government appropriations. And even their angriest constituents, who blame the Republicans for the shutdown, are likely to support a hard line over this.

So, in the words of General David Petraeus during the war in Iraq, tell me how this ends. Perhaps the looming mid-October debt ceiling, the breaching of which could have catastrophic financial consequences, will force the Republicans’ hand. But it’s equally plausible that, having precipitated a government shutdown over the health care law, the House Republicans could simply pass a short-term debt ceiling hike and leave the government closed. Even if they don’t, in the government’s own version of the “too big to fail” problem, everyone knows that President Obama simply will not allow the United States to default on its debt, and will take whatever quasi-legal maneuvers are needed to prevent that from happening.

At some point (three weeks? two months?) the essential government workers who are not getting paid could start to leave and find other jobs, perhaps forcing action. But it’s hard to imagine a rush to the exits, whatever the financial hardships. There simply aren’t that many private sector jobs for air traffic controllers or food inspectors.

The real world damage from a prolonged shutdown would be immense of course. A two-month shutdown would likely tip the economy back into recession, and could even do lasting damage to investor confidence in the United States. But to an increasing and disturbing degree, our Congress is no longer living in the real world.