After surprisingly little talk of a possible upcoming government shutdown, both Politico and the New York Times report today on the continuing chance that Congress won’t be able to pass temporary spending bills when the government’s fiscal year ends in two weeks. This could lead to an extended government shutdown, which, needless to say, would deliver another serious blow to an economy that doesn’t need any more negative shocks.
So it’s time for a reminder about the incentives here: budget brinkmanship is probably very smart politics for the Republican Party in general, but very dangerous for House Republican leaders.
Budget brinkmanship is good politics for Republicans because voters basically don’t like Washington squabbling, and are likely to blame both sides, regardless of who is at fault. Indeed, with Congressional approval ratings at record lows while Barack Obama still is around 40% approval, the president simply has a lot more to lose from a shutdown than Republicans do. Moreover, the evidence tends to be that even if voters theoretically want to punish both sides for government dysfunction, in fact the president’s party is apt to suffer the most.
However, budget brinkmanship is something that Speaker John Boehner and other House Republican leaders have a strong personal interest in avoiding.
That’s because, at the end of the day, appropriations bills will have to pass — either before or after a shutdown. And that means that at the end of the day Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the rest of leadership will eventually have to cut a deal with Barack Obama — either before or after a shutdown. If Republican leaders allow us to come to the brink of a shutdown, or allow a shutdown to happen, that means far more media attention. And the more high-profile the confrontation, the better the chance that conservative activists will tune in to what’s going on — and decide that Boehner is selling them out, putting pressure on Tea Partyers in the House to dump him as Speaker.
By contrast, if Boehner can ge through the appropriations process and cuts a quiet deal with the President without much attention to hot-button issues, conservative activists may not focus their ire on what’s going on.
I’ll say one thing: if Boehner manages to get the short-term spending extension he’s looking for now, and then a full-year spending bill a few weeks down the road, and does it all without any repeat of the brinkmanship we’ve seen all year, then I’m going to be extremely impressed at this political skills. It ain’t easy to get through as much as he has so far this year relatively unscathed. But now we’ll see if he can clear what promises to be an equally high hurdle.