The coming government shutdown

Paul Jacob

10/31/2010 12:00:41 AM - Paul Jacob

After next Tuesday’s election, Republicans will be the ultimate political power in the universe — or, at least, in the United States of America. That is, if GOP candidates perform anywhere near expectations and, indeed, capture even the slimmest majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

More powerful than the man who put the “O” in Obamania, the POTUS, the commander-in-chief with his finger on the nuclear trigger?

Well, yes. (Unless President Obama intends to aim missiles at the Congress. In which case, his popularity might improve.)

Forget the U.S. Senate. A Senate majority is not required. The House, alone, possesses the most awesome weapon in the federal government’s arsenal: the power of the purse.

Article I, Section 7 of our Constitution clearly reads: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives . . .” And Section 9 states, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

So, if Republicans in Congress are serious about restoring fiscal sanity to Washington, they will hold all the cards necessary to do so. The Obama Administration simply cannot spend money the U.S. House refuses to raise or appropriate.

What does this mean for post-November 2nd governance?

Two very important things: (1) Holding Republicans feet to the fire will be critical, requiring the Tea Party movement to continue to be an engaged, energized and take-no-excuses force, and (2) Democrats are likely to look back at their public relations success in 1995, when the new Republican Congress and Bill Clinton, their man then in the White House, had a showdown over the longest government shutdown in history — some 21 days.

Tea Party activists, smartened up by past bad behavior by Republican officeholders, are no longer willing to play the patsy role. From the special election race in New York’s 23rd congressional district, in which conservatives abandoned a moderate to liberal Republican in favor of a long-shot Conservative Party candidate, to the surprise dumping of three incumbent U.S. Senators in Republican primaries, conservatives and libertarians are putting principle before party.

It’s happening inside the Senate as well. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a Tea Party favorite, has been actively battling big-government colleagues. After the Delaware GOP primary provided yet another incumbent scalp, DeMint was asked if his principled campaign might not hurt Republican chances of gaining a Senate majority.“I came into the Senate with 55 Republicans, and I’m afraid that not enough of them believed in free-market capitalism and limited government,” DeMint replied. “I want to make sure that if we’re trusted again, that this time we do what we promise. And we can’t do that with the same people who created the problem.”

Furthermore, the fastest rising GOP star, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has shown that fiscal responsibility — actual budget-cutting — is popular. Even in a blue state. Christie explains that reducing spending is “not easy” because “it’s hard to say no.” But he adds, “If Republicans win the Congress we’ve got to put up or shut up.”

But, what about the Democrats?

The last time congressional Republicans, buoyed by an influx of new blood and a new majority, tried to force a reduced increase in federal spending, the Democrats won. How? By blaming the budget impasse on Republicans, and having an almost universally supportive media agree that those darn Republicans are deserving of all the blame.

So, reading the media tea leaves, the GOP congressional leadership blinked, caving-in to Bill Clinton. Clinton went on to win a second term; Republicans in Congress went on to cave in to everyone else they bumped into at the trough.

Can the back-room brains in the White House resist replaying that 16-year-old gambit?

Just as Republicans seek to portray Democrats as supporting government as the answer for every problem, Democrats attempt to paint Republicans as anti-government anarchists. A government shutdown, or even a big controversy over a possible shutdown, might serve the PR narrative of Democrats far better than that of Republicans.

What to do?

Congressional Republicans should consider three simple facts:

   1. Their base of support (including swing voters) will remain awake throughout the next cycle and fully expect them to keep their word to cut runaway government spending.

   2. The media is still largely in the tank for Democrats. That includes every TV network other than Fox as well as virtually every single newspaper in the country. But Fox and the Internet mean that a message of fiscal sanity can indeed compete in the media despite all the Democrats’ cries of wolf and interest group’s pleas of “Where’s my subsidy check?”

   3. The Democrats will suffer far more damage in a prolonged government shutdown than Republicans, because their base supporters are far more dependent on the continued splurging of federal funds than are GOP supporters.

The goal is not a shutdown, of course, but a fiscally sound budget. What is needed is the guts to fight for it. In short, the advice for this week’s GOP victors is: “Have a spot of tea. And don’t blink.”