SPENCER: GOP congress keeps ignoring its ace in the hole

Periodically; and frequently since Barack Obama has been President, the specter of a federal government shutdown has been raised. Typically it happens when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives talks about refusing to fund something the president wants funded.

Whenever this occurs the national mainstream news media runs stories about how the Republicans are threatening to force a government shutdown. In point of fact what the Republicans are actually doing in such circumstances is threatening to exercise the Constitutional right of the legislative branch to control the nation’s purse strings. Nonetheless, the public in general always seems poised to swallow the line that: “the Republicans want to shut down the government” – and that’s what creates the GOP’s dilemma.

Refusing to fund programs a president of the opposing political party wants funded has never been an unusual stance for Congress to adopt. Over the years, Democrat-controlled Congresses have done precisely the same thing as often as GOP-controlled Congresses have. The cutting off U.S. support for the Nicaraguan Contras by Congress during the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 198os was a classic example.

When in control of a house of Congress, both major political parties will, of course, be predisposed to resist appropriating taxpayer dollars for programs neither they nor the constituencies that elected them support. Given the proper perspective, this is a normal – some might even say healthy – means of assuring balance in divided government.

Perhaps nothing in recent years has angered conservatives across the country more than Congressional Republicans threatening and posturing as though about to refuse to fund measures they say they oppose only to ultimately cave-in and allow the funding to continue.

These dramas have played out in the following way. First the Republicans balk (often quite loudly) at funding the program or raising the debt ceiling, then President Obama turns up the heat by saying that if the Republicans don’t come through with the funding it will force a government shutdown. Republican advisors step in, armed with polls and focus group statistics, and tell the GOP lawmakers that if a shutdown takes place they’ll be blamed for it. So, suddenly the goal becomes avoiding a shutdown.

Ultimately, the Republicans, through a variety of legislative maneuvers and tricks, work with the Democrats to find ways to keep the funding flowing. Infuriating as all this might be for those on the political right, the President shouldn’t be condemned for continuing to play the shutdown card; after all, it has worked for him every time. In fact, he should be expected to keep doing it until the Republicans demonstrate that they can defeat it.

Conservative critics of Congressional Republicans usually argue that the GOP lawmakers lack the will and the nerve to stand up for their principles. There is a lot to be said for this diagnosis, but it leaves out a key point. It hasn’t been the Republicans in Congress that have threatened the shut downs; it’s been the President. With this in mind, criticism of Congressional Republicans ought to be focussed on the question — why don’t they at least attempt to set the record straight?

What’s actually been happening is the equivalent of a political game of “chicken.” President Obama repeatedly plays the “government shutdown” card knowing much of the national news media will back him up by saying the Republicans are threatening to shut down government. Meanwhile, the Republicans- who collectively show little faith in the American public- invariably fall into turmoil and eventually surrender.

Nothing has aided the rise of liberal policy victories over the past 20 years more than Republican fear of the liberal-leaning national news media. But the nasty little truth is that no matter how biased major portions of the news media might be, Republicans intensify its impact by failing to provide clear coordinated messages. In fact, liberal news media bias has almost become the Republicans’ universal excuse for having virtually no coordinated message at all except at election time.

Coordinated messaging needs to be initiated at the beginning, when House Republicans first start talking about cutting off funding for certain programs. And — here is the ace on the hole Republicans always miss — the focus should be on what Congress is willing to fund, not on what it wants to cut.

The clear coordinated message should be: “We are funding everything in the budget except this and this and this. If the President is willing to shut down all of government over these few things, that would be his decision, not ours.” The Republicans could say: “We funded those government services, if you can no longer get them it’s because the President is playing political games.” They could say: “We funded the national parks, if they close, it’s because the President closed them.”

Sure, some Congressional Republicans have probably made this point previously, but usually too few and too late in the game. What always seems to be missing is the coordination. A mere smattering of Republicans carrying the message is insufficient. Whenever a government shutdown potentially becomes a major issue, the Republicans ought to make a concerted effort to place the blame where they believe it belongs. This angle needs to be the very first point brought home in each interview and news release, not an occasional afterthought.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.