How a Government Shutdown Screws Paul Ryan

Rep. Paul Ryan's ambitious budget plan, which slashes $6 trillion off the deficit and debt over 10 years, could start a vital national conversation about our fiscal future—if a government shutdown spurred by hyper-partisan squabbling doesn't kill it first.

04.06.11 1:46 AM ET

Rep. Paul Ryan’s ambitious budget plan, which slashes $6 trillion off the deficit and debt over 10 years, could start a vital national conversation about our fiscal future—if a government shutdown spurred by hyper-partisan squabbling doesn’t kill it first. Plus, The Daily Beast’s David A. Graham on what happens if the government shuts down.

Rep. Paul Ryan has put forward a gutsy budget proposal that deals with entitlement reform and promises to cut the deficit and debt by more than $6 trillion in the next decade. Fiscal conservatives should be cheering.

But instead, some on the far right seem determined to bring about a government shutdown by the end of the week over a comparatively small sum. This all-or-nothing absolutism will provoke a popular backlash and overshadow the Ryan budget, stunting its potential as a constructive conversation starter about long-term fiscal responsibility.

At issue is whether conservatives will accept a compromise $30 billion spending cut in the 2011 budget or insist on $60 billion in short-term cuts, along with policy provisions defunding Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, and National Public Radio that are popular with social conservatives but political kryptonite to independents and centrists.

But the compromise measure of $30 billion is the largest onetime dollar-for-dollar cut to a proposed budget in American history—a good day at the office for anyone who wants to cut government spending. The alternative is a government shutdown that will solidify Main Street voters’ frustration with Washington’s culture of dysfunction.

The other elephant in the room is that short-term cuts to domestic discretionary spending, though painful, do little to reduce the long-term deficit and debt, which now clocks in at $14 trillion.

A government shutdown will send voters a message about Washington incompetence loud and clear—and it will hurt the newly elected GOP House more than the White House.

Government Shutdown: Full coverage That’s because domestic discretionary spending is roughly 12 percent of the total budget—the rest is defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Any serious long-term plan can’t realistically rely on short-term cutting alone. And in the wake of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission, the Ryan budget plan is the most serious proposal that’s been put on the table so far in Washington.

The Tea Party should be applauding, but instead its members seem determined to take the U.S. government off a cliff with a seriously misplaced sense of political courage.

At a sparsely attended Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill last week, activist and John Boehner constituent Kathy Dirr encouraged the GOP leadership to avoid any compromise, using colorful language that updated the “man-up” rhetoric of the 2010 campaign: “Take off your lace panties! Stop being noodle backs!” At the same rally, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) drew cheers by saying, “If liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down.’”

Talk about political games: Pence has been a leading voice demanding that provisions defunding Planned Parenthood and NPR be included in any budget to keep the government operating. He reiterated his resistance to any compromise on Tuesday’s Morning Joe. Pence’s insistence is an example of the hyper-partisan Kool-Aid being passed around and forcing down approval numbers for both Congress and the Tea Party.

Despite a midterm campaign that Republicans constantly said wasn’t about social issues, a troika of abortion bills were among the first orders of business for the new Congress. The attempt to defund Planned Parenthood has little to do with fiscal responsibility, and it has nothing to do with ensuring that abortions are not funded by federal taxpayers. That understandably unpopular notion has been banned by the Hyde Amendment for more than three decades. The targeting of NPR and the EPA is another example of a longtime conservative culture-war hobbyhorse that the maintenance of basic government services should not depend on.

And if a government shutdown does occur despite the wishes of responsible Republican leadership, voters will get the message about Washington incompetence loud and clear—and it will hurt the newly elected GOP House more than the White House. When government shutdowns take place, voters tend to blame the legislature more than the executive. And Republicans are not served well by memories of the last government shutdown or its lessons.

During the Gingrich-Clinton shutdown of 1995, voters blamed the GOP over Clinton by an average margin of 2-to-1. A new government shutdown will be déjà vu all over again. Even a new poll touted by conservatives, who say it shows that neither party would get the blame if a shutdown occurred, blurred the lines. It found that 38 percent of people would blame Republicans and 18 percent would blame President Obama, the same 2-to-1 split we’ve seen in the past.

Government shutdowns get the attention of Main Street voters who pay attention when things go wrong and wonder why they aren’t getting their tax returns in the mail. They’re going to like it even less when they realize that our soldiers are being asked to fight wars without pay because politicians can’t figure out how to work together.

Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer are publicly rooting for a shutdown because they know it’s a fight they can win politically, painting Republicans as extreme, ideological, and incompetent, instead of principled and pragmatic. That’s precisely why responsible Republicans like Ryan must know that those who want to go the mattresses on this continuing resolution fight are the worst enemies of long-term fiscal discipline. They will manage to lose both the battle and the war.

The real lost opportunity is that there is an appetite for dealing with the deficit and the debt. Growing numbers of Americans understand that we are on an unsustainable path that will sap our nation’s strength. After all, the world’s largest debtor nation cannot remain the world’s sole superpower indefinitely.

There is always something nihilistic about cheerleading for a government shutdown, but especially when the fight is comparatively small and will make politicians even more likely to avoid tough choices going forward. As Taegan Goddard of points out, “If lawmakers cannot agree on cuts that impact just 12 percent of the federal government’s spending, it’s hard to see how they’ll be willing to tackle the very popular and very expensive Medicare program.”

Not coincidentally, this latest game of congressional chicken has been accompanied by a decline in Tea Party approval ratings. A CNN poll last week found that Tea Party disapproval ratings were now in line with those of Republicans and Democrats. The Tea Party is seen increasingly as part of the problem and not part of the solution, and a government shutdown cheered on by the movement will solidify those perceptions.

Ryan’s plan is ambitious, and even deficit hawks will find plenty of details to disagree with. But it is a serious start to a new conversation, and Ryan had the guts to engage in specifics when other politicians across the spectrum, from Harry Reid to President Obama to Mitch McConnell, have been reluctant to lead. Political courage should be rewarded. But by confusing ideological inflexibility with political principle, a handful of hyper-partisan congressmen are threatening not just to shut down the government, but also to take Paul Ryan’s budget plan out at the knees in the process.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.