Monday, February 21, 2011

The Looming Government Shutdown

Over at Crooked Timber (here), John Quiggin wonders why the looming shutdown of the federal government on March 4th isn't a bigger deal to Americans. It's a very good question, and you should read his entire post. As Quiggin notes, the practical implications of even a short-term shutdown could be very severe for many people.

Here are a few tentative (and largely unsupported) hypotheses to explain the evident lack of concern about the consequences and lack of alacrity to prevent them:

(1) Few people remember the real harm done by the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s; all they remember is that it did not last that long.

(2) Among Democrats, even those who remember the consequences of the last shutdown remember that their side "won," as the shutdown backfired on the Republicans and increased support for President Clinton. They seem to expect the same thing to happen this time, as if the outcome is inevitable.

(3) John Boehner and the Republican leadership remember what happened last time and already have publicly announced that they will not let it happen again and, believing him, many people assume that a last minute deal will be struck.

One problem with hypotheses (1) and (2) is that past is not prologue. Just because the last government shutdown worked out as it did, and had few lasting consequences, does not mean the one now looming will prove to be just as temporary and inconsequential or that President Obama would be its political  beneficiary. As for hypothesis (3), Boehner's promise may not constitute a credible commitment because we already have evidence that he cannot control his own party in the House, where ideologically-pure "Tea Partiers" believe they have a mandate from the American people to, as Paul Krugman put it in a recent op-ed, build "a bridge to the nineteenth century."

One final hypothesis, which rings truer to me than the other three, is that March 4th is, in terms of political brinkmanship, still a long way off.  That's not to say that I am predicting a last-minute settlement (however temporary). But that's exactly what I think most of the party leaders (on both sides) in Washington are predicting. If so, then the absence of early agreement is in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether we get a last-minute agreement remains to be seen.

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