Potential Gov’t Shutdown: ‘The $64,000 Question’

Seemingly lost in the wrangling over President Obama’s arms-control treaty and other post-election legislating is the one must-do on the agenda for the lame duck session: pass a federal budget, or face a massive government shutdown.

Congress has, as has often been the case in recent years, left undone many of the annual appropriations bills that enact levels of funding for the new fiscal year, which began on October 1. That means that lawmakers must now approve, at least, a continuing resolution to keep federal agencies operating at the same levels as the previous fiscal year.

“That is something members absolutely have to pass. If they don’t, non-critical agencies will have to shut down, and we will have the first political crisis of the post-election time period,” says Darrell West, vice president and director, Governance Studies, the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington think tank.

Congress last week began its current lame-duck session, following the November 2 midterm elections. Attention in the post-election session has been dominated by Obama’s intense lobbying to approve his New START nuclear-reduction treaty with Russia, potential repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays from serving openly in the military, and other matters.

The last shutdown of non-essential government agencies came in late 1995 and early 1996, the result of a budget showdown between then-President Bill Clinton and Republicans who controlled Congress at the time.

Republicans expected Clinton to blink, and allow massive budget cuts. He stood his ground, resulting in most federal agencies to close for days at a time.

In those days, Clinton won the war of public opinion, and his approval ratings rose to their highest levels since his 1992 election. Clinton, at the time, was helped by comments made during the crisis by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in which he complained about having to leave Air Force One by a rear door. That made the shutdown “look like the tirade of a spoiled child,” in the words of former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was a close ally of Gingrich’s at the time.

This year, however, it remains unclear whether President Obama would similarly benefit, or whether the public would side with the GOP this time.

“That is the $64,000 question. During the Clinton administration, the government shutdown clearly benefitted Clinton. Whether that happens this time depends on how each side plays their cards and how voters judge their respective efforts,” West says.

West made his comments during a recent Brookings Web chat.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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