The federal shutdown this week represents the culmination of a sustained attack by a group of conservative Republicans on the size and scope of government that has been years in the making.
A core group of House Republicans elected in the tea party wave of 2010 has largely succeeded in its aim of scaling back federal spending, despite fervent opposition from President Obama and the Democratic controlled Senate.
“This moment feels very much like the inevitable outcome of a series of events that dates at least back to the 2010 midterms,” said Jared Bernstein, a former White House economic adviser who opposed the anti-government wave.
Even before the shutdown that began at midnight Monday, the tea party efforts greatly reduced the pace of federal spending. To the dismay of many Democrats and supporters of a robust federal government, the consequences of tea party efforts are likely to remain even when the shutdown ends.
The government is now subject to historically tight constraints that are causing a sharp decline in federal spending, with the exception of mandatory spending on the safety net.
Few expect those constraints to be loosened in coming years. As a result, conservatives say they take pride in what they have achieved even if they have been unable to eliminate their biggest target, the Affordable Care Act.
“I think the conservatives in the House have had some notable successes,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), a member of the tea party caucus. “You’re never 100 percent successful, but we certainly saved lots and lots of money.”
President Obama’s declining ambitions for domestic spending underscore the success of the tea party movement. When he came to office, he projected that agencies would spend $1.2 trillion in 2014. But this week, Obama was calling for a bill funding agencies at a level of $986 billion — an 18 percent decline from his earlier projections.
“The Senate-passed measure to keep the government operating represents an enormous compromise by progressives to avoid a damaging government shutdown,” analysts at the White House-aligned Center for American Progress wrote this week. “This concession is only the latest of many such compromises over the past several years.”
The new spending reality is the result of several events over the past three years. First, in 2011, Republicans and the White House came to an agreement to trim discretionary spending over 10 years.
They also said that if they could not find more budget savings, they would trigger automatic spending cuts at defense and domestic agencies. Those cuts, known as sequestration, took effect earlier this year, and few see a strategy to stop them.
“Finally, Democrats accepted much of the sequester. We’ve made some progress,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a leading tea party lawmaker.
At the same time, public trust in the federal government has fallen to historic lows.
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, just 28 percent of Americans rated the government favorably. By contrast, 63 percent of Americans see their local government in a positive light, and 57 percent of Americans view their state government favorably.
“It’s hard to imagine it can go lower,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “They just think the federal government can’t pound sand into a hole.”
The consequences of sequestration and brinksmanship are also taking a toll on the civil service. The federal workforce is shrinking, the number of new hires are plummeting and morale among workers is declining.
The constant assault on government service is “a devastating thing,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “We see a freezing of new talent coming into government . . . and morale is getting crushed.”
Barton said he is not opposed to all government, and is proud of his staff and has family members who work there.
“I think government service is an honorable thing,” he said. “But there’s a limit to what the government should be doing for people.”