The Washington Post

Government shutdown: What it means for candidates in 2012

Apr 05, 2011

A government shutdown might mean a lot of things, but NYU's Paul Light answered questions about how it might affect political candidates up for election in 2012. Read Today's Story

Whoops.  Should have said welcome aboard.  Looking forward to the chat.  Best.  Paul 

If you want to read a bit more on the true cost of the shutdown on public opinion, read my latest blog for the Post.

Back when the government last shut down in 1995 and 1996, it seemed that the Republicans took the brunt of the blame. Since then, their dominance over radio and television seems like it might change the outocome of the next shutdown. They have the ability to repeat, over and over, the same talking points until the mainstream media picks up on it and reports it as fact. How likely is this to happen with a government shutdown?

I think both parties take the hit on this one.  The public seems confused about it all--partisanship determines much of the stand on who's to blame.  But it's a pox on both their houses.  Washington looks completely out of control. 

I wish the government WOULD shut down. The American people will then see how totally destructive the Republican budget cuts will be to those who make less than $250,000 a year. And Rep. Ryan's "plan" for Medicare and Medicaid needs to be strangled in its crib right now. That has got to be the most reckless piece of legislation to come out of Congress in my lifetime.

No doubt the public will see something, but is the public really going to going into depth on it.  Sure, candidates will attack the Tea Party (and it deserves a dose of blame), but I think the public is just plain sick of how Washington works. 

Will a shutdown mean that the accounts payable and accounting Feds won't be working? Vendors won't get paid and that affects a whole lot of small businesses. Will the contractors like Booz Allen and SAIC be made to stay home and not get paid? Thanks - let's hope this doesn't happen - a mess all the way around.

All depends on the nature of the programs and who's essential and nonessential.  Many but not all contractors will be paid--but new contracts aren't going through already as agencies get covered in snow. 

Do you think this will hurt Obama's chances of being re-elected?

I think Obama's problems are bigger than this--he's just not showing much leadership, taking risks on all this.  He looks distant and unengaged.  Yes, he's getting folks together today to talk, but what's his proposal.  Anytime you've got Harry Reid at the helm of negotiations, you have a problem making the case that the president is in charge. 

Would the shut down include any congressional offices and staff?

Now that's a good idea.  Close the snack bars and cafeterias.  Close the parking lots and House gym.  That might sober folks up.  But that's not going to happen. 

Who do you think voters will blame more for the shutdown - Republicans or Democrats?

Again, both get the hit. 

While lots of people are talking about the political cost of a shutdown, what has the financial cost of this nonsense been? As a fed, I've watched tons of work go down the tubes since the start of the fiscal year as planned trips are canceled, reports rushed, contingency plans made--it's a lot of wheel spinning that I bet is costing millions. But I'd love to see an actual scientific estimate.

The cost estimates vary great.  $100 million a day.  $8 billion a week.  The real cost is in lost productivity and public doubt.  I rather suspect that tax cheats are thinking right now that they might not have to worry about filing on time or at all, for example.  The shutdown would certainly send the message that you can break the laws and get away with it, don't you think? 

How does the government shutdown affect members of the House and Senate? More to the point, will they go unpaid like rank-and-file federal employees?

Another great question.  My reading of the legislative appropriations process (one of the 13 appropriations bills is for legislative operations) is that the Senate and House would still get paid.  But honestly, I'm not sure.  I'll check it out. 

After the meeting at the White House this morning, where do you think we stand with the possibility of a government closure this Friday?

Medium to high right now.  Obama may yet pull off some kind of deal, but Boehner has lost control of the House.  He'll have to reach out to the Democratic Blue Dogs to get a majority, which is quite possible.  But his challenge is quite clear--if he brokers a deal with the Blue Dogs (which he repudiated yesterday, right?), and the Tea Party folks hold their seats next fall and even gain some, Boehner could be out of a job.  Ryan could become the next Speaker, for example.  So Boehner's got some thinking to do.  Seems right now that he's going with the Tea Party.  Could be a negotiating ploy, but not sure.  Get ready for an even bloodier debate over the debt ceiling.  The shutdown has all been small beer (as my South Dakota family would call it) compared to what we're going to get on the debt ceiling. 

There is a proposal to reduce Medicaid for people under age 55. I wonder how that polls with people under age 55, especially those closer to age 55 who feel they have been paying into a system for decades and now someone wants to take away the benefits?

Well, people don't paid into Medicaid.  It's funded by state and federal taxes on a percentage formula.  I think you're talking about Medicare, and you've got the right instinct.  We haven't heard much from AARP publicly about Social Security and Medicare.  If AARP takes a hard stand against any entitlement change, we're all back to the drawing board. 

Paul It seems to me that MOST of the public has the attention span of a gnat and that unless a shutdown lasts for weeks and starts to REALLY impact large numbers of folks outside the Beltway e.g. delayed Social security checks, etc no one will really remember this by THIS November muchless NEXT November.

It'd have to last for a while, that's for sure.  And it would take it's toll.  I mean, how many government breakdowns does it take for the public and their leaders to recognize that government is essential for delivering goods and services for the public's safety?  What about the Southwest story?  Shouldn't that wake some folks from their slumber?  My big worry is that a shutdown will just provoke more doubt--trust in government is so low that it can't go any lower statisically speaking, so what do we get instead?  Do we really want people second-guessing everything government does?  Hmmmmm.  Can I really trust this egg I'm frying this morning?  How about that glass of tap water?  How about my next flight on a 737?  Terrible abrogation of the Constitution's requirement that the president faithfully execute the laws.  Somebody should bring suit (don't doubt that someone will either). 

Federal employees and contractors that are locked out should be able to apply for unemployment. Are there any federal rules phobiting unemployment compensation?

These questions are so good.  Stump old Paul, I say.  I'd guess (probably good guess, too) that anyone laid off because of the shutdown is eligible for unemployment.  Why wouldn't they be?  Feds on furlough would get retroactive pay (though there are those in the Republican ranks who rather like to think that a few weeks of furlough would be a good thing to let stand without retroactive pay). 

I observe that Michelle Bachman has among the highest positive ratings among Republicans (yet high disapproval from Democrats, making her a very divisive national figure) and she is fund raising well. How might she use a shutdown to her advantage towards obtaining the Republican nomination for President?

Used to live in Minnesota.  Can't believe she's gotten such national visibility from a state that produced Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.  She's not presidential timber per se, but look at the money flowing in.  Not sure how she's going to use, but suspect the money will go to a Bachman PAC to support Tea Party candidates next year. 

You suggest the Dems are as much to blame as the Republicans, but they already caved in to the $30M+ that was Boehner's opening bid in Feb. Since that cave-in, it basically amounts to Boehner trying to cram in more to appease his extreme wing. Do I have this wrong? Where is the Dem instransigence? I don't see it. (It's like trying to make plans with a pal who is rational, agrees to a rational plan, then finds he can't reason with his crazy wife!)

I just don't see blame sticking to one party or the other, though activists on both ends of the political continuum are keeping score.  I think Americans have gotten to the point that it just doesn't matter much who's in charge to them.  It's actually building to a consent-of-the-governed crisis more than a budget squabble.  Our leaders just don't seem to understand the cummulative affect of this lack of agreement. 

If the government shuts down, will the Dept. of Ed still be collecting student loan money through direct deposit? It'd seem awfully unfair if the government could stop paying me, but still would be collecting on its debts.

Of course government will continue to collect debts owed, unless, of course, it involves delinquent taxes.  Anything on auto-pilot remains on auto-pilot.  That's why Obama is playing the social security issue a bit fast and loose.  Social Security Administration is funded by SS taxes through the Old Age and Retirement Security Trust Fund--meaning it's self financed.  At least that's what I'm told by the law and senior experts at SSA.  Might be unfair, but it's the way things work. 

When will we know if the fed. government is going to shutdown? I know it expires on Friday.  I want to be prepared.

I'd get ready now.  See how today plays out.  Congress has a great reputation for doing things at the last hour, minute, and second.  Never hurts to put a half tank of gas in the car, a warm blanket in the trunk, a few bottles of water in the glove compartment, if you get my drift. 

Honestly, it's not exactly a feat of magic to predict the outcome. Tinkering with health care cost Clinton dearly. Shutdowns cost the GOPS dearly. Add on top the attacks on teachers (the little people) and Medicare, it's hard to believe that the House is not a lock for Democrats in 2012, much less a landslide reelection for Obama. And this is from a Republican in the most Republican county in the most Republican state. The GOP will be pummeled.

Just aren't sure about that scenario, though you might be right.  The polls lean toward GOP taking bigger blame, and, lord knows, Boehner is trying to maneuver to force Senate Dems to take a "nay" vote on something big.  That really clouds the picture.  What would the headline be:  "Dems Forced to Close Government"?  How would that play? 

Will govt employees get paid retroactively? Will social security get paid retroactively? DOD weapon systems not get purchased? I thought so.  So what are the savings?

In theory and in every past shutdown, feds get paid retroactively. But you can expect a debate on that one.  Several House members have advocated a "pay holiday" for feds recently.  A two-week shut down would certainly save money if Congress did put a retroactive clause in the bill.  As for weapons, some will be put on hold, which might not be a bad thing.  But most of the contracts are long term.  The real damage would involve activities such as recruitment of patients for NIH trials, etc. 

Any chance Boehner & co. will read Gerson's column, get some perspective, and save their powder for FY13 and entitlement reform, rather than going all Taliban about a difference of $30B in discretionary for FY12. (There's an immense forest in front of them, stop smacking their heads against that first dang tree, right?)

Well, you're assuming that anyone is rational in all this.  Nobody sees much beyond the first tree, if not the first little root.  I say chance of saving powder is 0%.

I don't work for the Feds, but my wife does. If pay is delayed, we could probaly survive for a bit of time. Our creditors may be forgiving...for a while. However, I'm under the assumption that this time around, the anger is so great that Congress would not vote to grant retroactive pay. If not, then things are a nightmare. How do we receive reimbursements from health and childcare accounts for eligible expenses? How would CFC charities receive their donations?  More to the point, how do we make May's mortgage payment or pay for nursery school?

This is exactly the kind of fear that undermines the faithful execution of the laws (there goes that Constitutional term again).  I'm so sorry you're going through this--a victim of irresponsible action on both sides of the aisle.  Where is the adult supervision here? 

Be careful with what you're putting out - feds on furlough WILL NOT automatically get back pay for the time they're not working - Congress would have to approve it. For the question about unemployment, OPM has a great FAQ on furloughs.

You are correct. 

Hello I am a first time government employee and will be starting a new position on Monday April 11, 2011 - how will the shut down affect my first day as a fed?

If government is shutdown, go visit the Cherry Blossoms.  Who will be there to check you in?  Give you an ID?  Set up your passwords? 

You contend that Obama hasn't shown much leadership in this situation. Is there a strategy in that? Dumping the whole mess in the Republican's laps? What would you suggest he do to show leadership?

I don't know what Obama is thinking.  White House is nervous no doubt.  Should Obama pick a fight here and go over the heads of Congress directly to the public?  I think there are times to compromise and times to draw a line.  This may be one of those moments where elegant strategy and Washington's age-old love of horse-races should take a rest in favor of the national interest.  This is a particularly tender moment in world history.  We should send a message that we have the capability to make tough decisions. 

I'm intrigued by this -- can you explain your concern in more detail? And thank you for this informative chat.

Not everybody is terrified of a shutdown.  Certainly not people who dump toxic waste, tax cheats, etc.  Our system of government requires consent of the governed, whether expressed through voting, trust in government, or the willingness to obey the law.  If Congress and the president can't agree on a budget after six continuing resolutions, they set the precedent that they don't obey the law either--it's been half a year since the new fiscal year began; the law requires passage of a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year.  Who is break the law here?  I think both branches of government have failed us. 

Is it true that they are debating about last year's budget? If the Democrats had both chambers of Congress, why didn't they pass a budget when they had the votes (i.e. why pass CRs vs a budget)? Also, how will this effect next year's budget?

Very confusing isn't it?  We are debating this year's budget, the one that should have been passed in 2010, for the year that is half over.  We haven't started debating next year's budget, which must theoretically pass by the end of September. 

"Now that's a good idea. Close the snack bars and cafeterias. Close the parking lots and House gym. That might sober folks up. But that's not going to happen." Yes, that is exactly what would happen. Have you read the letter from the House Administration committee discussing oeprations under a shut down? Do you have any idea of what you are talking about? BTW, have you ever managed an election campaign or worked on one in a professional capacity? I've read your past columns and scholarly work which often long on theory and short on real knowledge but at least it has been in your area of academic (rather than real world) research. How do you know anything about the interaticon of issues with voters in a campaign situation?

Thanks for the comment.  Yup, I've worked in campaigns from time to time, both Democratic and Republican.  I also worked for Sen. Glenn (D) and Rep. Barber Conable, Jr. (R) in the early 1980s, and have done a fair amount of work here and there.  Think I've seen a lot, but don't claim I know everything. 

Seriously, what should the President or the Dems in the Senate do? Why is it both parties fault?

Sit down and make a deal.  Simple.  I thought they had one last week, but it fell through.  It ain't rocket science here.  There's a number between $33 billion and $61 billion that would work. 

Got to go.  Stay hopeful. 

In This Chat
Paul Light
Paul C. Light is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. He earned his B.A. with highest honors, summa cum laude from Macalester College in 1975, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in political science in 1980. He has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Minnesota, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before joining New York University, Light served as the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he founded the Center for Public Service in 1999. Light also served as Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies from 1999 until 2002. Before joining Brookings, he was Director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia from 1995-1998. Light has written twenty-one books on organizational performance in government, not-for-profits, and private firms, including Monitoring Government, Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability, The Tides of Reform, Making Government Work, The New Public Service, Government’s Greatest Achievements, and, most recently the award winning A Government Ill Executed. He has also written several books on public sector improvement, including Sustaining Nonprofit Excellence, and The Four Pillars of High Performance.
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