Government Shutdown Looms: So What?
By John D. Turner
14 Mar 2011

At midnight on 18 March 2011, the current continuing budget resolution funding the federal government expires. If Congress does not act, either by passing an FY11 budget or by enacting yet another continuing budget resolution, the federal government will at that point have no enabling legislation allowing them to spend money. The result will be that, except for “essential positions,” the government will shut down; up to 2.1 million federal workers will be furloughed, and business will come to a screeching halt.

For the first time since the government shutdown under President Clinton, the climate for this to happen is ripe, in fact, overly so. While leadership on both sides of the isle claim that the last thing they want is a shutdown, neither side is willing to budge on their side of the issues.

The Republicans were swept into control of the House and made large gains in the Senate, primarily on their pledge to cut government spending. One of their big promises was to cut 100 billion in current year spending, that is, spending in the FY11 budget. Thus far they have proposed only around 60 billion or so in cuts – and have had absolutely no luck in getting that past Democrat opposition in the Senate. This paints them into a corner somewhat; if they punt on this and compromise for less, the Democrats will accuse them of breaking a major campaign promise only three months into their term of office. It probably wouldn’t play well with Tea Party activists either. Tea Party candidates have publicly stated they will not compromise, and Tea Party leaders have indicated their willingness to “primary” those Republicans coming up for re-election in 2012 who cave on their promise to cut.

The Democrats, for their part, have proposed a measly $6 billion in cuts. Everything else, they claim, is necessary spending to get us out of our economic tailspin. There is no fat in the budget; in fact, Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, called the proposed Republican cuts “irresponsible”; this despite the fact that current spending for FY11 is projected to be $1.65 trillion over “budget.”

Compared to the current year deficit, both amounts are paltry. Indeed, in February alone, the federal government spent a record $221 billion more than they took in. Even if the Republicans got the full $100 billion in cuts, it would pay for less than half what the government spent in February; we still have seven months left in this fiscal year.

This whole thing begs the question, why is it that in mid March 2011, we are still trying to pass a budget for a fiscal year that began 1 October 2010? Shouldn’t we be arguing about the FY12 budget instead?

The answer to that question lies with the previous congress, the 111th. It was they who were supposed to pass the FY11 budget. However the House (where budget bills are supposed to originate) didn’t want to put their signature on a budget that started $1.3 trillion or so overspent, particularly before the election, and so they just didn’t put one forward, preferring instead to fund the government on continuing budget resolutions, and raising the debt ceiling when needed. Then after they were swept from office in the November 2010 elections, they simply didn’t care. Their attitude seemed to be “let the Republican’s take care of things, while we sit back and criticize. That way they will take the blame, and we will take back the House in 2012.”

So what will happen with the FY11 budget? Will we get another continuing resolution? Will the budget pass? Will the government shut down? It’s anybody’s guess. But my money is on a government shutdown occurring before a budget is finally passed. It may not be on 18 March; we may get another continuing resolution this time, but sooner or later I think it will happen. I hope not, as I am a government employee, but it would not shock me greatly.

Why do I think this? Simple. The Republicans made promises. Normally, this is not a problem for politicians; they can be very flexible on what promises they make and how the keep them or not. This time however, they were very public and vocal about it, across the board people voted for them on that basis. Reneging on that promise could cost them dearly in 2012. Then there are the Tea Parties. They are getting a lot of pressure from that front. This will make it very hard for the Republicans to compromise or back down, even if leadership would prefer to do so. After what happened to Republicans the last time government shut down (and they got the blame), their leadership really doesn’t want to go for round two.

Of course, the Tea Party Republicans could care less. Cutting government is why they were sent to Washington. If it means the government shuts down, well then, so be it.

On the Democrat side, there is no pressure to give ground. The Democrat position is that every dollar is needed. There is no place to cut. Yes, we are over budget. Sorry, but after all, we inherited this mess. It’s all George Bush’s fault. Blame him!

The President has threatened to veto any budget the Republicans put forward that cuts more than he has indicated a willingness to cut. The Democrat leadership claims they too don’t want to shut down government; however it is my belief that the Democrats would secretly welcome such a shutdown. They won big the last time it happened.

Where is the downside for the Democrats? The media has been painting the Republicans as the obstructionists and extremists. According to the MSM, the Democrats are willing to talk, but unwilling to make “irresponsible” cuts in the budget. Why are the Republicans insisting on things like cutting NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, and Planned Parenthood? Cutting these wouldn’t make a scratch on a pimple on the budget deficit. It’s just part of the Republican agenda to cut certain programs that they have had a vendetta on for years. Besides, while millions are still out of work, why are we even discussing this? Can’t we instead focus on jobs?

If the government does shut down, the Democrats and the media can point the finger squarely at the Republicans and say “look at all the pain and suffering you caused; another 1.8 million, hard-working people out of work and for what? So you can defund Planned Parenthood? Shame on you! Government employees take note; this is the Republicans fault. Any additional downturn in the economy is the Republican’s fault. Remember this in 2012!

So suppose the Republicans cave? Remember “read my lips, no new taxes?” They Democrats can always remind the voters that the Republicans were elected, full of promises, and failed to keep them. “We gave them the keys and they went back to their same old shenanigans. It’s time to give the keys back to us and let the adults drive.”

So yes, I see the likelihood of a government shutdown as more likely than less. I don’t see either side blinking, and I don’t think the forces in play will allow this impasse to go on forever.

Which brings up another question; will anyone really care if the government goes into shutdown mode?

Well, they pretty much didn’t last time. The previous government shutdown, also triggered by budget issues, lasted from 14-19 Nov 1995, and 16 Dec 1995 – 6 Jan 1996, when the issues were resolved. Major government services were suspended and federal workers were furloughed. At the time, I was working as a contractor and was unaffected by the shutdown. During the November shutdown I reported to work as usual (existing paid contracts were unaffected) and really noticed no difference. We worked with active duty military who are considered essential and are unaffected by shutdowns. During the second shutdown, I was on leave and again, noticed little difference. Other than many government services being shutdown, most everyone else noticed little difference either.

How about federal workers? Didn’t they suffer?

When private sector workers are furloughed, times get tough. You don’t get paid when you are on furlough; no work, no pay. So hopefully, you have a bit in savings to tide you over, since your creditors are usually unimpressed with the fact that you are out of work.

Funny thing though, it didn’t seem to work that way for the federal workers who were “furloughed.” True, they didn’t get paid while the government was shutdown. However after the budget was passed, and the government had money again, they were eventually paid for the time that they were “furloughed.” This time was not charged to annual leave; in effect, they received a free, tax-payer funded vacation while the House, Senate, and President figured out how they were going to resolve the budget impasse.

There is no guarantee that things will work out the same way this time; for one thing the budget situation is much worse than it was in 1996. On the other hand, there is precedent, and our government seems to run heavily to settling things based on precedent.

Then too, there are the federal employee unions. While not as strong as the state employee unions (and as I mentioned above, not all the federal government is unionized), they still have drag, particularly when it comes to campaign contributions to Democratic candidates for the House, Senate, and of course, the Presidency. Barack Obama has publicly stated that he plans to spend a billion dollars on his re-election campaign. That money has to come from somewhere, and you can expect that quite a bit will come from union coffers, same as last time. Ensuring that federal employees get reimbursed for any “furlough” time will help ensure union loyalty, and buy a lot of votes from federal workers, who will undoubtedly blame Republicans for the shutdown, and be thankful to Obama for making sure they can continue to pay their bills.

Midnight 18 March is the date the CR expires. Coincidently, 18 March is a pay day for federal employees. That means that we could be furloughed for two weeks and, assuming we get paid for the furlough days as has happened in the past, never miss a paycheck. And who knows? I might have to work anyway. Not everyone will be furloughed; in 1995, 571,000 DoD civilian employees remained on the job. We are still at war, remember? Where will the money come from to pay us? The last time, they raided the Civil Service Thrift Savings Plan retirement fund; something that would probably be illegal if a private company was to try it. Supposedly, this was all paid back once the budget was passed, but who knows?

Time will tell; only four more days. Will they pass a budget? Will they shut down government? Will they kick the can down the road for another two weeks by passing another CR? Stay tuned for the next not so exciting episode of the continuing drama “your government out of control; what happens when the children who never grew up are put in charge of a larger sandbox.”