Avoid a Government Shutdown

The conventional wisdom is that if the Federal Government shuts down because of the inability o thef Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratically-controlled Senate to reach an agreement on the 2011 budget, that Republicans will be blamed. This conclusion is reasonably based on the experience of 1995. When the Republican Congress and the President Clinton could not reach a budget agreement, Republicans were blamed.

Few remember that there were extenuating factors then that may not be duplicated now, differences that made bode better for Republicans. First, the titular head of the Republicans, House Speaker New Gingrich, was a conspicuous and to many an unpopular target to which the media could point. In addition, there was the story that perhaps a petulant Gingrich wanted a government shutdown in part because he was disrespected by being given a bad seat on Air Force One.

The story now is a little different. Some Democrats like former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean look forward to a government shutdown calculating that it would help the Democrats. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is not the character of Gingrich and will likely not appear petulant. Moreover, the House has passed a 2011 budget. The Democratic Senate has not, so there is no alternative budget to split the difference with.

If Republicans can manage to portray the debate properly, the Senate can appear to have acted irresponsibly. Moreover, if the Democrats had passed a budget last year, when they held both houses of Congress and the Presidency, there would be no chance for a government shutdown now. Instead, Democrats avoided their responsibility. They feared passing a 2011 budget that was so unpopularly large before the elections in 2010.

Despite the different situation now, Republicans would be prudent to take the best offer they can get on the 2011 budget and settle. The differences are relatively small. On Sunday, House Budget Chairman Republican Paul Ryan will layout the Republican 2012 and the long-term Republican budget vision.

The new budget will likely call for significant reform of entitlement programs. Republicans will need all the political capital they can muster to make their case. A government shutdown would be a unnecessary diversion. If given a choice of acting responsibly to come to some agreement on entitlement reforms and scoring political points, history suggests that Democrats will choose the latter. Indeed, some are in denial that any such problem exists. In preparation for the media-assis├ąted demagogic assault, Republicans need to focus on the new budget.

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