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Posts Tagged ‘Government Shutdown’

I don’t care about the current shutdown battle, but I still feel compelled to add my two cents when people make silly arguments about the economy suffering because government is temporarily spending less money.

This is actually a two-part debate.

From a microeconomic perspective, there is some genuine disruption for affected federal bureaucrats, even if they eventually will get full – and lavish – compensation for their involuntary vacations. And some federal contractors are being hit as well.

There’s also a debate about the macroeconomic impact, with some making the Keynesian argument that government spending is somehow a stimulant for the economy.

I’ve endlessly explained why Keynesian argument is bad in theory and a joke in reality.

In this interview, I tried to make a more nuanced point, explaining that we should focus more on gross domestic income (GDI), which measures how we earn our national income, rather than gross domestic product (GDP), which measures how we allocate national income.

I’m not sure I got my point across effectively in a 30-second sound bite, but it’s a point worth making since people who understand GDI are much less susceptible to the Keynesian perpetual-motion-machine argument.

But enough from me.

Harold Furchtgott-Roth, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, analyzes the potential macroeconomic consequences of the shutdown.

Does the U.S. government shutdown endanger economic growth? It has led to missed paychecks… Yet these employees represent approximately 0.5% of all American workers… The effect of the furloughs on gross domestic product is likely small. …U.S. GDP is more than $20 trillion annually, or approximately $55 billion daily. The daily compensation of furloughed federal workers is about $52.5 million, or less than 0.1% of GDP. This figure does not include affected government contractors, but even doubling or tripling this figure yields only a small share of GDP. …The net effect of the partial shutdown on direct salaries and wages will primarily be to delay, but not reduce, income for the affected families. …Maybe that’s one reason the stock market, a barometer of expectations of future economic growth, has been unperturbed by the budget impasse. The Dow and the S&P 500 are up nearly 9% since the shutdown began Dec. 22. Experience also gives reason for optimism. The last major government shutdown occurred in 1995-96. It affected the entire federal government, not only part of it. Yet U.S. GDP growth increased from 2.7% in 1995 to 3.8% in 1996.

That final sentence is key.

The Keynesians are always predicting bad consequences when there’s some sort of policy that limits government spending.

But the real-world outcome is always different, as we saw with the sequester.

Steve Malanga, writing for the City Journal, takes a microeconomic perspective on the shutdown.

I’ve seen no evidence that the shutdown will affect me and my family. I’ve heard no friend, neighbor, or relative even mention it. Virtually everyone I know outside of my professional life seems to be going about their business. Still, I’ve taken a thorough look at press coverage over the past two weeks and found nearly 500 stories on how the closure is supposed to affect our lives. …The press seems intent on convincing the rest of us that we’re at risk… Many headlines stoking fear contradict the articles they introduce. A story in the Guardian, for instance, was pitched as a tale of the shocking impact that the shutdown would have on a small rural town. Though the paper tells us the town is “in the grip of a partial government shutdown,” readers find little evidence of it. “We really haven’t noticed anything,” City Manager Mike Deal confesses. …a story in the Bangor Daily News noted that the Small Business Administration, which hands out government-subsidized loans to firms, won’t be making them during the shutdown. Still, the story notes, that’s not going to make much of a hit on the local economy, since the SBA has made just 2,687 loans in Maine since 2010, for an average of just 27 a month. …a story in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser entitled, “How the shutdown is affecting local breweries in Louisiana.” The problem, the owner of Bayou Teche Brewing explains, is that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is responsible for approving labels for new beers, and the agency’s not working right now. “With every government shutdown that’s happened since we opened, we’ve had a beer needing label approval,” said Karlos Knott of Bayou. “And that results in beer we’re just having to sit on.”

Steve’s column reminds me of a piece I wrote back in 2013.

Which is why I wish one of the lessons we learned from the shutdown fight is that much of what government does is either pointless or counterproductive.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Anyhow, no column on a government shutdown would be complete without some satire.

We’ll start with a sarcastic observation from Libertarian Reddit. Though it actually raises a serious point. I want to downsize Washington, but I don’t want any needless pain for bureaucrats. Yet shouldn’t we be similarly sensitive to the plight of folks in the private sector who suffer because of D.C.’s bad policies?

And it appears that government bureaucrats have figured out what to do with their hands now that they have extra time on their hands.

For what it’s worth, some bureaucrats engage in such recreation even when the government is open.

If you enjoy shutdown humor, you can find older examples here and here, and a new example here.

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I cared a lot about the 1995-96 shutdown and the 2013 shutdown because those were battles involving the size and scope of government.

But I don’t have a dog in the current fight over immigration and border security. That being said, I told Neil Cavuto that there are several fiscal policy lessons we can learn from the current shutdown fight.

A short TV interview just scratches the surface of an issue, so here are some additional details.

The first lesson is that much of what the government does is irrelevant to America.

I pointed out that ordinary Americans don’t notice or care that departments such as Housing and Urban Development are closed because there’s no net value generated by such bureaucracies.

And polling data supports my assertion.

The second lesson is that some parts of government should be shut down permanently.

If people don’t care or notice that a department is temporarily closed, they probably won’t care or notice if it is permanently closed.

I think that message applies to bureaucracies that are affected by the current shutdown (such as HUD and Transportation) as well as to some of the bureaucracies that are unaffected (Education, Energy, Agriculture, etc).

The third lesson is that temporary shutdowns are not a money-saving exercise.

A shutdown does not alter the amount of entitlement spending and it does not change annually appropriated spending. And since bureaucrats always get back pay for their involuntary vacations, there aren’t any savings there, either.

Some argue (see here and here) that a shutdown gives the executive branch unilateral authority to save money. I actually hope that’s true, but I have very little reason to think the Trump Administration is interested in fiscal rectitude.

The fourth lesson is that a busy and productive Congress is a dangerous Congress.

I included the brief blurb by Senator Tillis prior to my interview because I don’t want a “productive” Congress.

I’m not being nihilistic. Instead, I’m making the simple point that America’s Founders had the right idea in creating a factionalism-based system that enables gridlock.

Last but not least, the fifth lesson is that bureaucrats should have less power over economic activity.

I mentioned that there wouldn’t be any threat of disrupted air travel if all airports got to use a privatized version of TSA.

But that’s just one small example. Tim Carney’s column in the Washington Examiner is a must-read on the issue of pointless bureaucratic impediments to commerce.

…the government shutdown is another lesson… Before now, if an out of state brewery issued a new seasonal, you could simply purchase it across state lines thanks to…Form 5100.31 approvals… Of course, if you’re a particularly skeptical type, you may have a question… Why in the world should a brewer need federal approval on new beer labels? Once we ask that question, a thousand analogous questions come to mind. And in the asking, we expose the trick in so many stories about the crucial work of our expansive federal government. The trick is that the government’s work is often made necessary only by needless federal meddling in the first place. …when some reporter tries to tell you to be grateful that the federal government is opening a gate for you, ask them why the wall is there in the first place.

Amen.

This is what I was trying to get across in the interview about business decisions being stymied until some bureaucrats signs off.

Let’s wrap up today’s column with a superb Reason video by John Stossel.

P.S. No column on this topic would be complete without adding to our collection of shutdown humor (h/t: Libertarian Reddit).

You can see other examples of shutdown satire by clicking here, herehere, and here.

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I’ve previously explained why I don’t have a dog in the current shutdown fight in Washington.

Simply stated, Trump isn’t fighting to make government smaller. Instead he wants more spending for a wall and isn’t even proposing some offsetting reductions to keep the overall burden of government from expanding.

That being said, I get annoyed when defenders of the status quo act as if the economy is in danger simply because a small handful of non-essential bureaucracies and departments are temporarily shuttered.

In addition to the interview with Fox Business, I also pontificated on the same topic for Cheddar, which is a new network covering financial and economic issues.

So why are TV networks bothering to cover this non-story?

Because some people think the partial shutdown does matter. Here are some excerpts from a report by USA Today.

Economists are starting to weigh the potential damage of the ongoing federal government shutdown…if the impasse drags into late January or beyond, it could take a noticeable toll by dampening federal workers’ productivity, temporarily halting their paychecks… The biggest damage could be inflicted on consumer and business confidence that’s already been dented by the recent stock market selloff. …Economist Jesse Edgerton of JPMorgan Chase predicts it could trim growth by a half a percentage point. That’s about how much the 16-day partial government shutdown reduced growth in late 2013.

Sigh.

The people who made up numbers about the alleged harm of the 2013 shutdown are basically the same people who said the sequester would hurt growth. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

You use a crummy Keynesian model (which presupposes that government spending is good for the economy) and you get predictably nonsensical Keynesian results.

Writing for the American Spectator, Christopher Buskirk has a more sober perspective.

The DC media complex is not happy with the partial shutdown of the federal government. The government shutdown drags into the New Year, they tell us! …Yet for all of the breathless commentary from Beltway media, the reality is that the federal government can’t even shut itself down properly. Only about 25 percent of the federal government is affected. The military is fully funded and on duty, as are Social Security and Medicare. The US Postal Services continues delivering unwanted flyers and coupons, the TSA is fully funded and patting people down, and the Veterans Administration is still providing substandard care to our veterans. …when I turn on the faucet, water still comes out. When I drive to the store, the street lights are still on. In fact, I passed a police officer on the way to get a coffee this morning, so our neighborhood remains safe. So what am I missing? Not much it turns out. And neither is almost anyone else. …what we learned from the shutdown is that…the federal government is mostly non-essential.

Amen.

This is one of the reasons I don’t get agitated about shutdown (at least the ones that occur because someone is fighting for good policy). If we kept parts of the government shut down for a long period of time, maybe people would notice that nothing bad happened and then conclude that it would be a good idea to never let those departments and agencies reopen.

In any event, the focus of fiscal policy should be on shrinking the federal government, not merely a temporary partial shutdown (which doesn’t even save money since bureaucrats eventually get full pay for the days they weren’t in their offices).

Let’s close with a bit of humor I received in my inbox.

You can see other examples of shutdown satire by clicking here.

P.S. As I noted in my interview, the current shakiness of financial markets should be blamed on Trump’s protectionism and the hangover from Keynesian monetary policy.

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In this interview with Dana Loesch, I make several points about the Trump budget, including the need to reform means-tested entitlements and Obamacare (with a caveat from my Second Theorem of government), as well as some comments on foreign aid and fake budget cuts.

But those are arguments that I make all the time. Today, I want to call attention to the mid-point of the interview when I explain that President Trump is actually in a strong position to get a win, notwithstanding all the rhetoric about his budget being “dead on arrival.”

Simply stated, while he can’t force Congress to enact a bill that reforms entitlements, his veto power means he can stop Congress from appropriating more money that he wants to spend.

But if he wants to win that battle, he needs to be willing to allow a partial government shutdown.

Which he wasn’t willing to let happen when he approved a bad deal a few weeks ago to fund the government for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year.

But we have some good news. He may have learned from that mistake, at least if we take this tweet seriously.

Amen. Trump should be firm and explicitly warn Congress that he will veto any appropriations bill that spends one penny above what he requested in his budget.

And if Congress doesn’t comply, he should use his veto pen and we’ll have a partial shutdown, which basically effects the “non-essential” parts of the federal government that presumably shouldn’t be funded anyhow.

The only way Trump loses that fight is if enough Republicans join with Democrats to override his veto. But that’s unlikely since it is mostly Democrat constituencies (government bureaucrats and other recipients of taxpayer money) who feel the pinch if there’s a partial shutdown.

This is a big reason why, as we saw during the Clinton years, it’s Democrats who begin to cave so long as Republicans don’t preemptively surrender.

The bottom line is that being tough on the budget isn’t just good policy. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated, there are political rewards when you shrink the burden of government and enable faster growth.

P.S. I’m not convinced that Trump actually wants smaller government, but I hope I’m wrong. This upcoming battle will be very revealing about where he really stands.

P.P.S. And if we do have a shutdown fight, I hope it will generate some amusing political humor, such as what’s at the bottom of this post. Other examples of shutdown-related humor can be enjoyed by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

In theory, that means a long-overdue opportunity to eliminate wasteful programs and cut pork-barrel spending.

In reality, it mostly means business as usual.

Politicians in Washington just reached a deal to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year. As reported by the Washington Post, it’s not exactly a victory for libertarians or small-government conservatives.

Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal, considering that Republicans have unified control of government. …Non-defense domestic spending will go up, despite the Trump team’s insistence he wouldn’t let that happen. The president called for $18 billion in cuts. Instead, he’s going to sign a budget with lots of sweeteners that grow the size of government. …the NIH will get a $2 billion boost — on top of the huge increase it got last year. …Planned Parenthood…will continue to receive funding at current levels. …after the deal was reached…, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi quickly put out celebratory statements. …“Overall, the compromise resembles more of an Obama administration-era budget than a Trump one,” Bloomberg reports. …Reuters: “While Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democrats scored … significant victories in the deal.” …Vox: “Conservatives got almost nothing they wanted.”

I guess you could call this a triumph of “public choice” over campaign rhetoric. Politicians did what’s in the best interest of politicians rather than what would be best for the nation.

I’m disappointed, as you might expect. But as I say in this interview, there are far more important battles. I’ll gladly accept a bit of pork and profligacy in the 2017 budget if that clears the decks for much-needed repeal of Obamacare and long-overdue reform of the tax code.

But here’s the catch. I don’t expect that these reforms will actually happen. Yes, the deck has been cleared, but I don’t think Republicans will take advantage of the opportunity.

The fundamental problem, which I pointed out in a different interview, is that there’s not a governing majority for smaller government. And that has some very grim implications.

Even more depressing, I point out that only Trump has the power to turn things around. Yet I see very little evidence that he, a) believes in smaller government, or b) is willing to expend any political capital to achieve smaller government.

To make matters worse, Republicans have convinced themselves that they lose the spin battle whenever there is a shutdown or some other high-stakes fiscal fight with Democrats.

For what it’s worth, I’m trying to remind Republicans that it is in their long-run political interests to do the right thing (as Reagan demonstrated). That’s why, in the first interview, I said they need to gut Obamacare and lower taxes if they want to do well in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for the “stupid party” to behave intelligently.

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I’m normally a big fan of shutting down the government and I’ve tried to convince timid lawmakers that shutdown fights can be worthwhile.

The bottom line is that nothing really bad happens when there’s a shutdown (notwithstanding petty efforts by bureaucrats) for the simple reasons that only “non-essential” parts of the bureaucracy actually get closed. In other words, a government shutdown in all cases is simply a partial shutdown.

And since I don’t favor any funding of non-essential functions, I view a partial shutdown as a good start. Indeed, while the various interest groups in DC hyperventilate about supposed disaster, I experience a feeling of joy and serenity (as illustrated by this modified cartoon, which originally was altered to show my reaction to sequestration).

As far as I’m concerned, the key lesson from shutdown fights is that our nation will be better off if bureaucracies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or Department of Education are permanently shuttered. And let’s add the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, and Department of Agriculture just for the fun of it.

These entities shouldn’t get short-run funding or long-run funding.

That’s the point I made in the second half of this recent interview on Fox Business.

I’m not the only person who likes the idea of a partial shutdown.

Writing for the Resurgent, Erick Erickson explains how a shutdown fight would be valuable.

Americans need to be reminded that the world will not end if the government shuts down. They need to be reminded to take care of themselves instead of relying on Uncle Sam’s teet. A government shutdown with the GOP in charge would be a far different thing from a government shutdown run by Democrats. President Obama tried to inflict maximum pain on the American people to force the GOP to reopen government. President Trump, instead, could take a different approach and use the experience to show Americans how out of control government has really gotten.

And Larry Kudlow had a similar message in a column for National Review back in 2015.

…sometimes you have to make a point. Send a message. Show voters what you really believe. Take a stand. …Most of the Beltway media will blame Republicans. Democrats will blame Republicans. And GOP pundits will blame Republicans. Political death, they will say. Really? …during the Reagan-O’Neill era, most of the shutdowns were budget focused. Reagan wanted less spending; the Democrats wanted more. …The Reagan-O’Neill-era shutdowns were short, and in most of them Reagan prevailed. Meanwhile, the Reagan recovery flourished, the Republicans held the Senate (until 1986), and the Gipper was reelected in a landslide in 1984. Going back to the Obamacare-related shutdown of 2013, a bit more than a year later the Republicans swept the Senate and gained an even larger majority in the House. …shutdowns are a cumbersome way to make a point. …But perhaps Republican leadership in both Houses might think of this: There are too many deals and not enough principles, beliefs, and clear messaging.

Having now provided all this evidence in favor of government shutdowns, you would think I’m excited about the possibility that there will be a partial shutdown this Saturday when a temporary funding bill expires.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I view shutdown as a means to an end. I want those fights to occur in hopes that there will be reforms that shrink the overall burden of government spending.

In this case, though, the shutdown fight largely revolves around President Trump’s request for money to build part of a wall between Mexico and the United States. Some people think that’s a good idea and others think it’s a bad idea, but the one thing I can say with certainty is that it’s not a money-saving idea. Even if Trump wanted to finance the wall by reducing outlays in other parts of the budget, the net result would not be smaller government.

The bottom line is that even though I almost always cheer for a government shutdown, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines for this fight.

But if Trump and congressional Republicans at some point decide to fight for much-needed spending restraint (a naive hope, I realize), then I’ll be the first to cheer if that battle leads to a shutdown.

P.S. My favorite bit of shutdown humor is at the bottom of this post, and other examples of shutdown-related humor can be enjoyed by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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Does Donald Trump have a consistent and coherent set of economic policies?

He sometimes says things indicating that he understands Washington is a cesspool of waste. But on other occasions, he seems to be singing off the same song sheet as Bernie Sanders.

Which is why, when I recently tried to dissect Trumponomics, I admitted to being clueless.

The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable? He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?

For what it’s worth, I’m getting more skeptical that Trump would try to restrain and limit the federal government if he got elected.

And I have three recent news reports to underscore my concern.

Here’s a very disturbing example. Trump actually criticized Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not raising taxes. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

Donald Trump attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for failing to raise taxes in order to properly fund schools and roads on Tuesday, in a startling new break from rightwing orthodoxy… “There’s a $2.2bn deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” said Trump. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”

To dig deeper into the issue, Governor Walker had just endorsed Ted Cruz, so I can understand why Trump would try to take a few shots at someone who is supporting a rival for the GOP nomination.

But attacking the Wisconsin governor for successfully balancing his state’s budget without a tax hike? Sounds more like something Hillary would say. Maybe it’s time to induct Trump into the Charlie Brown Club.

Trump also doesn’t like federalism. Assuming he even knows what it is. In his column for the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Adler shares some Q&A from a recent CNN interview with Trump.

QUESTION:  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation.  I would also say health care, I would also say education.

This doesn’t sound like a candidate who wants to reduce the federal government’s footprint.

Here’s more of the interview.

COOPER:  So in terms of federal government role, you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Well, those are two of the things.  Yes, sure.  I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods…

Huh, providing “great neighborhoods” is now a legitimate function of the federal government?!? I guess if Washington gets to be involved with underwear, neighborhood policy is just fine.

And why is he talking about education when the goal should be to eliminate the Department of Education?

To be fair, Trump also said in the interview that he wants to get rid of Common Core.  So it’s unclear what he actually envisions.

His answer on healthcare is similarly hazy.

COOPER:  And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Health care – we need health care for our people.  We need a good – Obamacare is a disaster.  It’s proven to be…

COOPER:  But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP:  The government can lead it.

So he wants the federal government involved, but he also thinks Obamacare is a “disaster.” I certainly agree about the Obamacare part, but once again we’re left with no idea whether a President Trump would make good reforms of bad reforms (i.e., would he move the “health care freedom meter” in the right direction or wrong direction?).

One thing that is clear, however, is that Trump doesn’t seem to have any core principles about the size and scope of the federal government.

He may not even realize that federalism is a key issue for advocates of limited and constitutional government.

Last but not least, Trump criticized Senator Cruz for the partial government shutdown fight that occurred in 2013. Here are some passages from a report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner.

When Trump did get around to Cruz, his critique focused…on the 2013 partial government shutdown. …He goes and he stands on the floor of the Senate for a day and a half and he filibusters …. To stand there and to rant and rave for two days and to show people you can filibuster — and in the meantime, nothing was accomplished.

I guess this isn’t an issue of underlying principles, but it does give us some idea of whether a President Trump would be willing to fight the Washington establishment.

Moreover, his assessment of the shutdown fight is completely wrong. By reminding voters that Republicans were opposed to Obamacare, the GOP won a landslide victory in 2014.

But you don’t have to believe me. Even an ultra-establishment, anti-Cruz figure like Trent Lott (former senator and now lobbyist) grudgingly admits that the shutdown was a success.

Cruz views the shutdown as a victory because the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular and Republicans swept to victory in 2014. Lott said…“That was their strategy, and it worked, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”

The bottom line is that America is heading in the wrong direction, with Washington projected to consume ever-larger amounts of the economy’s output. This is a recipe for continued economic weakness in the short run and economic crisis in the long run.

Turning policy in the right direction requires a principled President who is fully committed to overcoming resistance from the special interests that dominate Washington’s culture.

I still don’t pretend to know where Donald Trump is on the big issues, but I’m not holding my breath for good results if he somehow gets elected.

P.S. Though I do expect more examples of clever political humor the longer he’s in the public eye.

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A new fiscal year starts October 1, and this is terrifying news for Republicans in Washington. They’re scared that if they don’t give Obama everything he wants, they’ll get “blamed” when the President vetoes annual spending bills and shuts down the government.

If this sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s for a good reason. There were big shutdown fights during the Clinton years, a near-shutdown fight in 2011, and then another major shutdown fight in 2013 (as well as rumors of possible shutdown fights in 2012 and 2014). And Republicans ostensibly were at fault in every case.

Now, thanks to big disagreements about whether to renege on the Budget Control Act and/or whether to subsidize Planned Parenthood, it could happen again.

At least if Republicans don’t preemptively surrender.

I realize I’m a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but there’s a strong case to be made that GOPers should exhibit some backbone and fight for spending restraint even if President Obama decides to pick a shutdown fight.

First, fighting can lead to better policy.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, a multi-year period of spending restraint starting in 1995 and ending in the late 1990s paid big dividends. The burden of federal spending dropped from more than 20 percent of GDP to less than 18 percent of economic output, and a big budget deficit became a big budget surplus.

The fiscal fights in recent years (involving not just a shutdown and shutdown threats, but also sequester battles and debt limit conflicts) also led to better fiscal outcomes. There was a de facto spending freeze starting in 2010 and ending in 2014, and the burden of government spending fell during those years, dropping from more than 24 percent of GDP to 20.3 percent of economic output.

Second, it’s unclear whether shutdowns actually lead to political blowback. Yes, the polling data seems to show that the GOP gets blamed when there’s an actual shutdown in Washington, and they obviously face unified hostility from the media and various interest groups whenever they hold firm.

That being said, there’s precious little evidence that they suffer on election day.

Republicans retained control of the House and Senate after their shutdown fight with Bill Clinton, and even picked up two Senate seats in 1996.

The 2013 shutdown fight over Obamacare was followed by a massive GOP landslide in 2014, which rewarded Republicans for opposing Obamacare.

So maybe the lesson is that voters don’t really care about shutdowns, particularly if they don’t take place close to an election. And I’ll pat myself on the back for predicting  – both at the start and the end of the 2013 shutdown – that there wouldn’t be any negative political consequences.

That being said, these policy and political arguments apparently aren’t very convincing to GOPers on Capitol Hill.

As reported by The Hill, Republican leaders think the possibility of a shutdown fight is a “crisis” to be avoided.

House Republicans will huddle in a pivotal closed-door meeting Wednesday morning as they face mounting pressure to defund Planned Parenthood — including threats to shut down the government. …Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are in no mood to reprise the shutdown of 2013. They believe another headline-grabbing crisis would severely damage the party at a time when they’re trying to show that Republicans can govern and take back the White House.

By the way, this isn’t just a fight about Planned Parenthood getting subsidies while selling parts of aborted babies.

Obama also says he’ll shut down the government if Republicans don’t give him more spending.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Examiner.

President Obama…called on Republicans to pass his budget when Congress reconvenes next month. He also threatened to veto any budget that did not increase spending. …”And if they don’t, they’ll shut down the government for the second time in two years,” said Obama.

Wow, let’s think about what’s actually going on. First, the President is reneging on the deal he agreed to back in 2011, which says something about ethics, character, and honesty. Second, his threatened veto, should it occur, is the only reason there would be a shutdown.

So why would that be the fault of Republicans?

Even more remarkable, President Obama even claims a shutdown would harm the economy.

President Obama on Thursday warned Congress not to “kill” the growing economy by risking a government shutdown this fall.

He must have a short memory (or no shame) because he made the same Keynesian-based argument that a sequester would hurt the economy. And he was wrong.

And he made the same claim about the 2013 shutdown and how it supposedly would hurt the economy. And was wrong then as well.

So what’s the bottom line?

At a minimum, advocates of fiscal responsibility should fight to protect the spending caps. There also should be a natural alliance between libertarians and social conservatives to end Planned Parenthood’s handouts.

Simply stated, some fights are worth having.

Though it’s important to understand this doesn’t guarantee victory.

The Wall Street Journal has a sober assessment of the challenge facing the GOP.

…the real GOP problem isn’t John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. It’s James Madison, who designed a government of checks and balances that is hard to overcome without the White House. …the party simply doesn’t have the votes to pass most of its preferred policy outcomes, much less to override a Democratic President.

The editors at the WSJ still think Republicans should fight, but the battlefield should be a separate piece of legislation rather than annual spending bills.

They should still fight and frame the issues to educate the public. They can even use budget reconciliation to send a budget to Mr. Obama’s desk with only GOP votes. But the project for the next 14 months should be to achieve what they can within divided government… Another failed government shutdown will make that harder.

I agree and disagree. Yes, not all fights need to be part of the annual appropriations legislation.

But unilaterally ceding the fight on the yearly spending bills would be wrong since Obama could successfully impose a higher burden of government spending.

I can understand why Obama wants to gut the spending caps. After all, they led to his biggest-ever defeat on fiscal policy.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the GOP leadership should hand him a victory without a fight.

P.S. There’s a humorous fringe benefit to government shutdowns, as you can see by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

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Let’s celebrate some good news.

When politicians can be convinced (or pressured) to exercise even a modest bit of spending restraint, it’s remarkably simple to get positive results.

Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship. But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

And “much better fiscal numbers” really are much better.

Here’s a chart I put together showing how the burden of federal spending declined between 2009 and 2014. And this happened for the simple reason that spending was flat and the economy had a bit of growth.

But now let’s look at some bad news.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the big spenders in Washington don’t like fiscal discipline.

They don’t like the modest restraint required by the Budget Control Act and they want to repeal or eviscerate the law. And they’ve already enjoyed some success, replacing spending restraint with tax hikes and budget gimmicks back in 2013.

And now there’s pressure for a similar capitulation this year, led by the Committee (gee, what a shocker) that’s in charge of spending money.

An article in Politico captures some of the internal dynamics.

…what should have been a dream job for House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has instead become an exercise in frustration. Despite his plum position, Rogers finds himself at odds with GOP leadership… He’s calling for his party to raise strict spending caps he says are choking off necessary funding… But Rogers’ calls for a budget deal have fallen flat.

By the way, it’s not the main point of today’s column, but the article also shows why it was so important to eliminate “earmarks.”

Lawmakers no longer can be bribed to support more spending in exchange for pork-barrel projects.

It’s a reminder of the sway lost by the once powerful appropriations panel, in an age when earmarks are outlawed… The committee, once an aspiration for every lawmaker, is struggling to make its voice heard… appropriator Steve Womack (R-Ark.)…cheered Rogers for “pushing our leaders to the extent that he can” toward a budget accord. “Appropriators are in a tough spot … We just don’t have the grease that we formerly possessed.”

Good. I don’t want big spenders to have “grease” that facilitates a bigger burden of government.

But getting rid of earmarks didn’t win the war. Washington is still filled with lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronies, special interests, and other insiders who want more spending.

They want to bust the spending caps so they can line their pockets at the expense of the American people. Which is why maintaining the BCA caps are a critical test of whether Republicans are sincere about controlling Leviathan.

To understand the importance of the spending caps, here’s a chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-wing group that supports bigger government. I won’t vouch for their specific numbers since they have an incentive to exaggerate and overstate the amount of fiscal discipline that’s been imposed, but there’s no question that the big spenders have been handcuffed in recent years.

Now that we’ve reviewed why it’s important to have spending caps, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

There are two reasons why Republicans may sell out. First, as already discussed, some of them are spendaholics. They like bribing voters with other people’s money.

The second reason the GOP may capitulate is that the President and congressional Democrats may force a “government shutdown” fight.

To be more specific, the annual spending (or “appropriations”) bills are supposed to be completed by October 1, which is the start of the new fiscal year.

If President Obama uses his veto pen, which is what most observers expect, there will be a shutdown. And even though previous shutdowns have yielded positive policy changes, Republicans are afraid that they will suffer political blowback.

Given that they won a landslide election in 2014 after the 2013 shutdown (and also prevailed after the 1995 shutdown fight), this skittishness is a bit of a mystery, but the conventional wisdom is that GOPers will capitulate to Obama and agree to a deal that busts the spending caps.

Which would be very unfortunate for the cause of good fiscal policy.

On the issue of big government and spending discipline, I recently appeared on John Stossel’s show, along with my colleague Chris Edwards, while participating in FreedomFest. Here’s what we said about the importance of shrinking Washington to promote freedom and prosperity.

P.S. In this video, Chris and I pontificate at greater length on fiscal policy issues.

P.P.S. While I’m critical of the politicians on the Appropriations Committee, I don’t think they’re necessarily any worse than other lawmakers. As I explained last month when analyzing the bad behavior of politicians who are on the committees that deal with transportation, the system creates a perverse incentive structure to expand government.

P.P.P.S. Here’s some government shutdown humor. And some more at the bottom of this post.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote that Republicans should not be intimidated if the White House threatens a government shutdown.

Simply stated, prior shutdowns have yielded meaningful policy victories without causing measurable political damage.

This isn’t to say that the goal of any fiscal fight is a shutdown. Instead, my point is simply that Republicans shouldn’t strengthen the bargaining position of the White House by announcing that they will do whatever it takes to avoid a government shutdown.

This shouldn’t be a controversial assertion.

For instance, Obama could threaten that he won’t sign a spending bill unless Republicans agree to a top tax rate of 90 percent.* Do Republicans acquiesce to that demand?

Or what if the President says he will veto spending legislation if it doesn’t include nationalization of the oil industry. Or expanded Obamacare. Should the GOP say yes?

Based on the no-shutdown-for-any-reason rule, Republicans would have to surrender to these hypothetical demands. I’ve called this the “French Army” approach to budget policy since Obama always wins.

But that won’t happen. I’m guessing 90 percent-plus of GOP politicians and GOP-friendly pundits would agree that a line should be drawn in the sand based on the extreme examples I provided, even if it means a shutdown of the government because Obama vetoes a spending bill that doesn’t include those provisions.

In other words, Republicans presumably don’t actually believe in the no-shutdown-for-any-reason rule. Instead, they are simply signalling that they don’t think it makes sense to have a shutdown fight based on the fights that are likely to occur in the near future.

But that creates a problem for the GOP. In the short run, it means the White House gets to unilaterally grant amnesty to certain illegal aliens. More important (at least from my perspective as a fiscal policy wonk), it gives Obama the upper hand in battles that may take place next year over issues such as spending caps and Obamacare funding.

To their credit, Republican leaders recognize the problem, so they’re searching for a strategy that would achieve their objectives without a government-wide shutdown.**

A story in Politico lays out their most recent maneuvering.

Republican leaders have intensified their planning to prevent a government funding showdown, weighing legislative options that would redirect GOP anger at Barack Obama’s expected action on immigration and stave off a political disaster, according to sources involved with the sessions. …Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their top aides and deputies are mulling several options that would give Capitol Hill Republicans the opportunity to vent their frustration with what they view as an unconstitutional power grab by the White House — without jeopardizing the government financing bill. The options include…passing two separate funding bills — a short-term bill with tight restrictions on immigration enforcement agencies, and another that would fund the rest of the government until the fall.

I’m tempted to grouse about the reporter’s bizarre claim of “political disaster” for the GOP. After all, the recent mid-term elections were a huge victory for Republicans.

But let’s instead focus on the idea of having two spending bills, one that funds 99 percent of the government, presumably without controversy, and one that funds – with controversial restrictions – the relatively tiny parts of government that deal with immigration enforcement.

The story continues, pointing out that some sort of fight is inevitable.

…what exactly Republicans can do outside of the funding process to stop Obama remains an open question. Even if they had enough votes to pass a stand-alone bill, it would almost certainly be vetoed by Obama — and the GOP would likely lack the votes to overturn it.

So does this mean part of the immigration bureaucracy would be shut down for the rest of the fiscal year?

Presumably not, though it’s unclear whether Obama or Congress would have any incentive to compromise and strike a deal.

Regardless, some pundits like this potential strategy for the GOP. Ramesh Ponnuru, writing for Bloomberg, thinks it puts pressure on the Democrats.

Why not try to pass a funding bill that pays for all of the operations of the federal government except for Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in the Homeland Security Department that would carry out Obama’s order? They could then try to pass another bill that just funds that agency — but with a restriction saying no money can be used for the president’s amnesty. What would the Democrats do then? If they block a big funding bill that has nothing to do with immigration over the issue, it becomes hard to deny that they’re the ones shutting down the government to get their way. If they don’t block it, they’ll have no government shutdown to complain about — and the parties could move on to a more narrowly focused fight about the immigration budget.

And in a column for the Washington Examiner, Byron York also seems favorable toward the strategy.

…in January, with the GOP in control — and, presumably, Obama’s edict in hand — Republicans will work on crafting a new spending measure that funds the entire government, with the exception of the particular federal offices that will do the specific work of enforcing Obama’s order.

Byron assumes that Obama will sign the big bill that funds almost everything and then fight about the mini-bill funding the small part of the Department of Homeland Security that deals with immigration enforcement.

…the president will veto it. At that point, a shutdown battle could occur — but it would be a battle over shutting down the small part of the federal government tasked with enforcing the immigration order. Everything else would remain up and running.

So is this a successful approach, one that not only can derail Obama’s executive amnesty but also could be used for next year’s fiscal battles?

I’m not as confident as Ramesh and Byron for the simple reason that (if he asked me) I would tell Obama to veto the bill that funds 99 percent of the government and justify his actions by stating that he “won’t be blackmailed” by Congress.

Ramesh correctly points out in his column that the resulting shutdown won’t be the fault of Republicans, but will that be apparent to voters? Particularly in the midst of a battle when the establishment press will be acting as an echo chamber for White House talking points?

Maybe I’m wrong, but a government-wide shutdown seems like the most effective strategy for Obama. He won’t be asking my opinion, of course, but I’m sure he has plenty of advisers who would reach the same conclusion about how to proceed.

Which means that Republicans ultimately will have to decide whether they have any policy preferences that are sufficiently important that they’re willing to fight for them even if Obama forces a shutdown.

It’s a judgement call, and here are two examples to illustrate why you shouldn’t tilt at windmills and launch suicide missions, but also why you shouldn’t unilaterally disarm.

Example #1: The Department of Education should be abolished, a goal that theoretically could be largely achieved by not appropriating any funds when spending bills are put together in 2016, though it certainly would lead to a shutdown fight beginning about one month before the presidential election.

Example #2: The debt limit fight of 2011 produced some much-needed spending caps and sequester enforcement, but the White House is very opposed and may be so committed to undoing those policies and expanding the size of government that it forces a shutdown fight next year.

Looking at these options, even a curmudgeonly libertarian such as myself won’t be urging lawmakers to have the shutdown fight in Example #1.

However, I’m hoping that establishment GOPers will show a similar blend of principle and pragmatism by being willing to have the fight with Obama outlined in Example #2.

*Spending bills (known as appropriations bills inside the beltway) technically are not supposed to include the types of policy changes used in my examples, but Obama could say he won’t sign a spending bill if there isn’t accompanying legislation to accomplish one of more of the listed objectives. Or he could even demand that a spending bill include language stating that a certain amount of money should be dedicated to a particular bureaucracy for purposes of achieving a specific policy.

**One surreal part of this debate is that “shutdown” is a somewhat misleading term since most of the government (the military, air traffic control, etc) actually continues to operate.

P.S. I’ve already shared some amusing video, commentary, and cartoons about “Grubergate.”

Well the folks at American Commitment have put together a highlight video for your enjoyment.

And here are some Grubergate cartoons. We’ll start with one from Robert Gorrell.

Michael Ramirez is in fine form as usual.

Here’s one from Dana Summers.

Eric Allie has an amusing addition to our collection.

Henry Payne also gets in a good jab.

Last but not least, Chip Bok nicely captures the attitude of Washington DC.

These are all funny cartoons, but you know who’s laughing the hardest right now?

The answer is Jonathan Gruber, because he got about $6 million of our money as part of insider contracts from government.

In other words, I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that Obamacare is a get-rich-quick scheme for the political elite.

Just another example of how big government enables sleazy corruption.

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Notwithstanding the landslide rejection of Obama and his policies in the mid-term election, I don’t think this will produce big changes in policy over the next two years.

Simply stated, the GOP does not have the votes to override presidential vetoes, so there’s no plausible strategy for achieving meaningful tax reform or genuine entitlement reform.

But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be important fiscal policy battles. I’m especially worried about whether we can hold on to the modest fiscal restraint (and sequester enforcement) we achieved as part of the 2011 debt limit fight.

Part of that victory was already negotiated away as part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal, to be sure, but there are still remaining budget caps that limit how fast politicians can increase so-called discretionary spending.

According to the Congressional Research Service, budget authority for defense is allowed to rise from $552 billion in 2014 to $644 billion in 2021. And budget authority for domestic programs is allowed to climb from $506 billion to $590 billion over the same period.

I think that’s too much spending, but the interest groups, lobbyists, cronyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and other insiders in Washington would like much bigger increases. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the Obama Administration also wants to bust the spending caps.

This is why I’m very worried that some Republicans are undercutting their negotiating position by saying that there will be no government shutdowns.

Let me explain how these issues are connected. At some point next year, Republicans on Capitol Hill will be responsible for putting together spending bills for the following fiscal year. They presumably (or am I being too optimistic?) will put together budget bills that comply with the existing spending caps.

Obama will then say he will veto such legislation and demand that Republicans unilaterally surrender by enacting bigger spending increases and also gutting sequestration. The GOP will then have two options:

A) they can surrender.

B) they can continue to send the President spending bills that comply with the law.

But if they go with option B and the President uses his veto pen, then the government shuts down. And even though the shutdown only occurs because the President wants to renege on the deal he signed in 2011, Republicans are afraid they’ll get blamed.

The Washington Post reports on this fearful attitude, citing the anti-shutdown perspective of the incoming Senate Majority Leader.

A day after he won reelection and Republicans retook the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left no doubt… “Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns…,” McConnell said in a valedictory news conference in Louisville.

But that view irks some lawmakers who worry Obama will then have a blank check.

The first battle may revolve around immigration amnesty, but – as noted above – I’m more focused on fiscal fights.

But McConnell could be tripped up by the same conservative forces that have undercut Boehner since he became speaker in 2011. The issue this time is Obama’s expected executive action to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.conservatives…have urged McConnell and Boehner to fight back by allowing only a short-term budget bill that would keep government agencies open until early next year. These conservatives believe that once Republicans hold both chambers of Congress next year, they can force Obama to accept a budget bill that would prohibit him from implementing his executive order on immigration.

At this point in the article, the reporter, Paul Kane, engages in some anti-factual editorializing.

…the days of brinkmanship could return with a vengeance, and the government could once again be shut down. That could provide a devastating blow to Republicans, hurting their chance to win back the White House and hold on to their relatively slim Senate majority in 2016.

Huh?!? Republicans just won a landslide, so why are we supposed to believe last year’s shutdown was “a devastating blow”?

Mr. Kane also refers to a shutdown later in the article as a “fiscal calamity” even though he shows no evidence (because there wasn’t any) that government shutdowns cause any damage.

But there is at least one person who is convinced by this narrative. And that person, Senator McConnell, is preemptively trying to convince other GOP Senators to give Obama the upper hand in any fiscal negotiations.

McConnell’s advisers are worried enough that by Friday evening they were circulating a memo showing how damaging last year’s shutdown was to the Republican Party — an effort designed to counter conservatives who point to this month’s triumphant election as proof that the shutdown did little damage. …The memo showed that in Gallup polling from late 2012 until this month, …Republicans held steady just a couple of points lower through 2012 and most of 2013 — until the 16-day shutdown of the federal government in October 2013. In just a few weeks, the McConnell chart shows, Republican favorability plummeted 10 points. It has taken a year for it to climb back to where it was before the shutdown.

But who cares about “favorability” ratings. The poll that really matters is the one that takes place on election day.

And here’s some of what I wrote in my post about lessons that could be learned from the 2014 elections.

Back in 2011, I explained that Republicans could play hard ball, largely based on what really happened during the 1995 government shutdown. And in 2013, I again defended a shutdown, pointing out that voters probably wouldn’t even notice that some government offices were closed, but they would remember that the GOP was branding itself as the anti-Obamacare party. The establishment, by contrast, thought the shutdown was a disaster for Republicans. …many…Republicans felt the same way, excoriating Senator Cruz and others who wanted a line-in-the-sand fight over government-run healthcare. The moral of the story isn’t that shutdowns necessarily are politically desirable, but rather that it’s very important for a political party to find visible ways of linking itself to popular causes (such as ending Obamacare, fighting big government, etc).

At least one person agrees with me. Jeffrey Lord, writing for the American Spectator, points out the GOP establishment was wrong about the political impact of the 2013 government shutdown.

The whole event was giving prominent Republicans in and out of office the political willies. …Republican senators, congressmen, governors, ex-office holders, potential presidential candidates, lobbyists and pundits…were spreading the word. That word? …it was some version of curtains for the GOP. The party would be toast. …they all got it wrong. Not just wrong, but Big Time Wrong. A week ago the Republican Party — barely a year away from the government shut down these folks were bewailing in various terms as bad strategy that “will lose more” for Republicans than Democrats — won a blowout election. …Will Republicans learn anything here?Do you think Mitch McConnell makes the connection between the government shutdown of 2013 and the fact that he is about to become Senate Majority Leader?

To be fair, we don’t know what would have happened if there wasn’t a shutdown in 2013, so maybe the GOP still would have taken the Senate.

But there’s also no doubt that the GOP benefited by having a big public fight about Obamacare. Voters didn’t remember the shutdown, but they did remember that Republicans were against the President’s government-run healthcare scheme and they remembered that Democrats were for it.

I have no idea whether that made a difference in one Senate race of six Senate races, but Obamacare clearly was an albatross for Democrats.

In closing, I want to point out that there are limits to a shutdown strategy.

Picking a fight (or, more accurately, refusing to surrender to Obama) in 2015 is almost surely a winning strategy. But having the same fight in October of 2016 probably wouldn’t be very smart, particularly since the establishment press would do everything possible to spin the fight in ways that advance Hillary Clinton (or some other Democrat presidential nominee).

In other words, context matters. Pick the right fight.

But the bottom line is that Republicans – assuming they don’t intend to acquiesce on every single issue – must be prepared to let Obama veto spending bills and shut down the government.

Returning to the American Spectator story, Ted Cruz may not be very popular with some of his colleagues, but I think he made an unassailable point about what happens if the GOP unilaterally disarms.

Cruz…asked them for their alternative. Cruz paused, then said that the response he got was “the sound of crickets chirping.”

P.S. One reason why Republicans are skittish about shutdowns is that they think they last the 1995 fight with Bill Clinton. But if you lived through that battle (or if you look at contemporaneous news reports), it’s clear the Republicans had the upper hand.

P.P.S. Here are the five lessons I shared immediately after the 2013 shutdown fight.

P.P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some shutdown humor, click herehere, here, and here. And if you prefer sequester cartoons, click here, here, here, here, here, and (my favorite) here.

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I recently gave five reasons why the shutdown fight was worthwhile and my number one reason was that it’s better to be on offense than defense.

It seems I’m not the only one to reach this sensible conclusion. Here’s some of what Fred Barnes wrote today for the Wall Street Journal.

In the deal that ended the government shutdown, Republicans…got almost nothing they’d sought. But what has been largely overlooked is that the deal didn’t curtail, much less end, the automatic spending cuts known as the budget sequester. And undoing the sequester is what President Obama and Democrats wanted most of all. The survival of the automatic spending cuts gives Republicans the upper hand in confronting the White House and congressional Democrats on budget issues… For Republicans eager to corral federal spending—and that’s most of them—the sequester is a gift that keeps on giving. …Democrats, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are fit to be tied as they watch cherished social programs gradually shrink.

Other than the assertion that social programs are shrinking (they’re simply not growing as fast), Barnes is right. By going on offense on Obamacare, Ted Cruz and his allies put the left on defense and prevented them from successfully organizing to undo the sequester.

Kudos to the Tea Party for being willing to do the right thing against uphill odds.

In his column, Barnes explains that the sequester has been great news.

To say the sequester has backfired for Democrats is putting it mildly. …The sequester is cuts and only cuts. As a result, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted proudly last week when announcing the end of the shutdown that “government spending has declined for two years in a row [for] the first time in 50 years.” …Saving the sequester “has been a top priority for me and my Republican colleagues throughout the debate” about the shutdown, Mr. McConnell said. …Republicans can sit on their hands and experience the joy of trimming the size of government and, thanks to the sequester, watching Democrats gripe about it.

Spot on. The sequester was a major defeat for Obama (and also a big loss to the Washington establishment).

Moreover, Senator McConnell is correct about government spending actually declining for two consecutive years, which is a remarkable achievement and a sign that the Tea Party has made a difference (though I explained in my post on presidential spending performance that it’s not as impressive as it sounds because of the way TARP money is measured).

So let’s hope Republicans don’t fumble away the sequester as part of some tax-hiking grand bargain that will enable bigger government.

Since we’re doing some after-the-fact analysis of the shutdown fight, this gives me an opportunity to belatedly share some great shutdown images from Buzzfeed. There are about 20 of these, all of which are worth seeing. Here are my three favorite ones.

We’ll start with some horrid anarchists disobeying the government.

Buzzfeed Shutdown 3

Here we have some radicals, probably from the Tea Party.

Buzzfeed Shutdown 2

Last but not least, here are WWII vets who failed to obey the statist clowns at the National Park Service.

Buzzfeed Shutdown 1

P.S. Previous examples of government shutdown humor can be enjoyed by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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The wailing and hysteria in Washington is over. The politicians now have the authority to borrow more money and the bureaucrats are all back at work (rested and refreshed after their paid vacation, so they’ll probably tax, spend, and regulate with extra fervor).

So what can we say about this fight? I have five semi-random observations about what happened.

1. It was a fight worth having, even though there was virtually no chance of derailing Obamacare.

With America’s separation-of-powers system, the House of Representatives had the ability to force a fight about Obamacare, but it didn’t have a realistic shot at winning the fight. I suspect President Obama would have chosen to deliberately default if necessary to thwart Republican efforts to defund or delay the law.

That being said, I’m glad the Tea Party-oriented members chose to take a stand. They focused attention on a bad law. They forced the left to play defense. Simply stated, they were willing to take a stand against the ongoing Europeanization of the American economy. That’s something to admire, not criticize.

2. Any strategy to reduce the burden of government will have to overcome an establishment media that is philosophically biased and politically partisan.

Maybe it’s just my own naiveté, but I’m surprised that so many journalists are one-sided partisans. They don’t write stories explaining that the government shut down because Democrats rejected House-approved legislation defunding Obamacare (which accurately depicts the shutdown as being the result of a disagreement between Democrats and Republicans). Instead, they have screaming headlines about “Republicans shut down the government.”

Even more disturbing, I had several conversations with journalists explaining that the United States would not default if the debt limit wasn’t raised. The federal government, I explained, will be collecting 12 times as much revenue as required to pay interest on the debt. And I shared quotes from several establishment budget experts who agreed with my assessment. Yet those journalists inevitably wrote stories about “Republicans pushing US closer to default.”

3. The shutdown will probably be a political plus for advocates of small government.

Notwithstanding the polling data, I’m not worried about political damage because of the shutdown-debt limit fight. In the short-run, the fight sidelined the left’s agenda. Instead of debating how to expand government or how to raise taxes, we had a battle over Obamacare. That’s a good thing. And as more and more people learn about the deep flaws of the President’s main “achievement,” they will begin to appreciate in the long run that some lawmakers wanted to curtail government-run healthcare.

This won’t stop the media from talking about a “defeat” for the Tea Party, both because they’re lazy and also because they want to discourage advocates of small governments from future fights. For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect the 2014 election will generate good results for the Cruz-type lawmakers. Indeed, it’s worth noting that congressional Republicans did very well in the 1996 elections, even though conventional wisdom said they would suffer as a result of the 1995-96 shutdown fight.

4. Fans of political drama should be happy since there will quite likely be another shutdown-debt limit fight in a few months.

Debt Limit Obama CartoonYesterday’s agreement kicks the can down the road. The “discretionary” parts of the government are now funded through January 15 and the government’s new borrowing authority will last through February 7.

That almost surely means we’ll have a similar fight early next year.

5. To win that future fight, the GOP establishment and the insurgents should agree on a common strategy.

From a political perspective, Democrats had a big advantage in the recent fight because they locked arms and agreed to unanimously resist the efforts to curtail Obamacare. This meant they had to cast some tough votes in favor of the individual mandate and in favor of Obama’s special exemption for Capitol Hill. But that unified strategy put them in a stronger position than Republicans, who may have agreed on the goal of curtailing Obamacare but disagreed on the tactics of Cruz and his allies.

This is why my main advice to friends on the Hill (both from the establishment and insurgents) is to sit down over the next month or so and agree on a common strategy. If they did that, the insurgents would learn that the establishment crowd is sometimes willing to do the right thing (such as the Ryan budget) and the establishment lawmakers would learn that the insurgents are willing to push for more modest changes. I’m not sure what specifically that would mean. Maybe they’ll agree to go after Obamacare again, or some specific feature of that boondoggle law. Maybe they’ll push for overall entitlement reform. Or maybe they’ll go with my top choice, which is some sort of spending cap akin to the Swiss Debt Brake, such as Congressman Brady’s MAP Act.

If you’re interested in these topics (or if you’re a glutton for punishment), Chris Edwards and I spent almost one hour discussing all these topics in this recent Cato e-briefing.

If you want something only about half as long, I recommend my video series on the economics of government spending.

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Even though it’s an uphill battle, I’m glad there are some lawmakers willing to fight Obamacare. They realize a hard battle today could help save America from genuine fiscal crisis in the future.

I don’t know how this government-shutdown battle (which is morphing into a debt-limit battle) will end, but I’m hopeful the taxpayers get some sort of victory.

The 2011 fight over the debt limit, after all, gave us sequestration, which has been Obama’s biggest defeat.

Heck, maybe in this year’s fight we can even keep the government shut down long enough that people realize that we can do without much of the Washington bureaucracy.

If nothing else, this fight has exposed the callow, juvenile, and spiteful mentality of the President and his team. These Washington hacks are trying to make the shutdown as painful as possible for innocent third parties.

Mollie Hemingway has a must-read article at The Federalist with lots of disgusting examples. Here are the ones that strike me as especially cruel, dangerous, and/or petty.

Last week the Obama Administration chose to barricade the World War II Memorial to keep aging veterans and other citizens out during the so-called government “shutdown.” It’s tremendously wasteful to spend taxpayer funds and personnel shutting down an open-air memorial that could be visited at any time of the day prior to the shutdown, whether staff were nearby or not. WWII Memorial BarackcadeBut more than that, it’s just cruel: World War II veterans are on a race against time to see their memorial. …the feds shuttered the Amber Alert web site, which posts pictures of missing kids. …Amber Alerts aren’t even federally run. They’re mostly run by the states themselves. It took more time and energy to shutter the site than to just let it keep running. Every other juvenile justice program kept running… The National Park Service placed cones along highway viewing areas outside Mount Rushmore this week, barring visitors from pulling over and taking pictures of the famed monument. This pettiness extended to attempts to shutdown privately-run rival visitor sites such as Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home. …The list goes on and on and on. The feds put 77-year-old Joyce Spencer and 80-year-old husband Ralph out of the home they’ve owned since the 1970s because it sits on federal land.

This goes way beyond the ordinary Washington Monument Syndrome, which occurs when politicians try to make supposed budget cuts as painful as possible.

The Obama White House is adding steroids and meth to that Syndrome in ways that are so pathetic that you would think their strategy will backfire (just like the Massachusetts Governor went overboard when he said budget cuts would lead to zoo animals being euthanized).

And people wonder why I mock politicians!?!

Since the Obama Administration’s petty actions seem like a joke, let’s close by sharing some real jokes from the late-night talk shows.

Jay Leno

  • President Obama has officially canceled his trip to Asia. He said he didn’t want to be in Indonesia not doing anything to solve the crisis when he could be in Washington not doing anything to solve it.
  • Actually, it’s the perfect time for President Obama to go to Asia. I mean, what better time to leave Joe Biden in charge of the country than during a shutdown?
  • This government shutdown thing is getting old. The national parks are closed, museums are closed, and federal agencies are closed, but our borders are wide open. Don’t worry about that.
  • It is day three of the government shutdown. Right now 33 percent of the government is doing absolutely nothing, which is not bad considering that before the shutdown 80 percent weren’t doing anything.
  • This shutdown is hurting everyone. Today, Michelle Obama told fat kids: “You’re on your own. Eat a Happy Meal. I don’t care.”
  • According to a new report, experts in Pakistan say $25 million in cash is smuggled out of Pakistan every day, and less than 1 percent of Pakistanis pay any income tax at all. Here’s the amazing part: Somehow their government hasn’t shut down, but ours has.
  • How many are worried about a government shutdown? How many are more worried about it starting back up?
  • I’m glad the government has shut down. Think about it, for the first time in years it’s safe to talk on the phone and send emails without anybody listening in.
  • This whole government shutdown thing comes down to who will blink first. Well, we know it won’t be Nancy Pelosi. We know that for sure because she hasn’t blinked since the last shutdown.
  • If the government does shut down, nonessential White House employees will be sent home without pay — so more bad news for Joe Biden.
  • Since 1976 there have been 17 government shutdowns. The longest was during the four years that Jimmy Carter was president.

David Letterman

  • At first people thought the government shutdown would last maybe a day, at the most a week. Now people are concerned, and experts are saying the shutdown may last as long as a Kardashian marriage.
  • Almost a million non-essential government employees were let go. Well, isn’t that the problem, that there’s that many non-essential employees?
  • Even the NSA is out of business. And while they’re closed, while the government is shut down, they are asking citizens to please spy on each other.
  • Do you care that the U.S. government’s shutting down? I thought they were already shut down. I mean, honestly.

Jimmy Fallon

  • Republicans were hoping John McCain would help them get their way on the spending bill — because if there’s anyone who can beat Barack Obama, it’s the guy who lost to Barack Obama.
  • After Congress failed to reach an agreement on a new spending bill, the federal government officially shut down. So roads won’t get fixed, public employees won’t be able to help you, and getting a federal loan for a house will be very difficult — but there will also be a lot of differences.

Craig Ferguson

  • Most people think the IRS Is just out to audit people. But that is not true. In addition to the people who do the audits, the IRS has people dedicated to defending taxpayers who get audited. But guess which group just got furloughed?
  • The shutdown means the national zoo is closed. Who’ll feed the animals? Is anyone even there to lock them up at night? Pretty soon starving lions and tigers could charge out of the zoo. They’d devour the fattest, dumbest people on Capitol Hill. Actually that might be the answer to all of the problems.

Jimmy Kimmel

  • Nonessential government services have been put on hold. Flight safety inspectors furloughed. National monuments closed. The Grand Canyon is closed — they filled it with spackle.
  • Passport offices have been closed too. Interesting fact: Passport lines take exactly the same amount of time whether the passport office is open or not.

Having recently renewed my passport, the last Jimmy Kimmel joke hits a bit too close for comfort. But the best two jokes, in my humble opinion, are Letterman’s quip about non-essential employees being part of the problem and Leno’s line about how we should really worry about the government starting back up.

Gee, this is almost enough to make one conclude that we would be better off with a much smaller government!

P.S. Other examples of government shutdown humor can be enjoyed by clicking here, here, here, and here.

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It appears that the government shutdown, which technically is a battle over annual appropriations legislation for so-called discretionary spending, is going to drag on for a while.

The Obama Administration has shown zero willingness to negotiate, even though Republicans have made a series of offers to resolve the conflict.

And the longer this fight lasts, the more likely that the shutdown battle will get wrapped up in a bigger fight over the debt limit.

The White House apparently thinks this is a good development because of the assumption that GOPers can be stampeded into a bad deal to keep the government from supposedly defaulting.

Indeed, the Administration already is fanning the flames of economic anxiety. Here’s some of what the Treasury Department recently wrote as part of this world-is-ending hysteria.

A default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.

I’m surprised they didn’t warn about the four horsemen of the apocalypse and also say that default would mean cancer, tooth decay, and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

On a more serious note, there are three things about the Treasury report that are worth noting.

1. The Obama Administration is deliberately trying to blur the difference between defaulting on the debt, which would have real consequences, and “defaulting on obligations,” which is a catch-all phrase that includes mundane and uneventful matters such as postponing a Medicare payment to a hospital or delaying a grant disbursement to a state government.

2. The Treasury report repeatedly says bad things “could” happen and “might” happen, but never that they “will” happen. Well, I “could” be the clean-up batter next year for the New York Yankees, and I “might” date a couple of supermodels from Victoria’s Secret. But I wouldn’t want to bet my life on either of those things happening. Likewise, don’t hold your breath waiting for the sky to fall if the debt limit isn’t immediately increased.

3. The White House wants people to believe genuine default is likely even though tax receipts this fiscal year are expected to be more than $3 trillion and interest on the debt is projected to be only $237 billion. In other words, the Treasury will collect more than 12 times as much revenue as needed to pay interest on the debt. Even someone like me, with my well-known views on the incompetence of the federal government, thinks that the Treasury Department will have no problem figuring out how to avoid default.

To be sure, there would be some real problems if the debt limit wasn’t raised. The Treasury Department would have to override its own system to stop payments from automatically occurring. The bureaucrats would have to figure out how to prioritize payments.

Interest unquestionably would be paid on the debt, so there’s no real possibility of default. One also assumes the Administration would figure out how to make politically sensitive payments such as Social Security checks. But this would be uncharted territory, so things probably would be messy.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that a default only would happen if the White House wanted it to happen. And while the Obama Administration has shown a willingness to inflict pain on innocent third parties – as illustrated by the attempts to inconvenience Americans when the sequester imposed a tiny bit of fiscal restraint, it is inconceivable that the White House would decide to engineer an actual default.

By the way, it’s not just partisan political operatives in the Obama Administration who are making hysterical assertions.

Here are some blurbs from a Wall Street Journal report showing that the CEO of Goldman Sachs seems to be on the same page as the White House.

“There’s precedent for a government shutdown. There’s no precedent for default,”Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein said after emerging from an hour-long meeting between Mr. Obama and top financial executives. The executives, in town for a series of meetings arranged by the Financial Services Forum trade group, told Mr. Obama that even the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt, should policy makers fail to raise the ceiling on the nation’s borrowing, would derail the nascent recovery and cause economic harm. Mr. Blankfein said they told Mr. Obama “exactly how bad it would be.”

And here are parts of a story from the UK-based Guardian about the views of the IMF’s head bureaucrat.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, urged America’s politicians to settle their differences before the dispute harmed the entire global economy. Speaking ahead of the fund’s annual meeting in Washington next week, Lagarde said it was “mission critical” that Democrats and Republicans raise the US debt ceiling before the 17 October deadline. Lagarde said the dispute was a fresh setback for a global economy… “In the midst of this fiscal challenge, the ongoing political uncertainty over the budget and the debt ceiling does not help. The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse, and could very seriously damage not only the US economy, but the entire global economy.”

So what’s going on? Why are they making these hyperbolic statements?

Beats me, but here are my three theories.

1. They don’t know what they’re talking about, either because of stupidity or laziness. Since neither Blankfein nor Lagarde are stupid, perhaps they are simply too lazy to learn how the federal government operates and they don’t understand that the Treasury Department will have far more money than is needed to pay interest on the debt.

2. They understand the issues, but they’re willing to make dishonest and misleading statements because they want to please the White House. This could be because they sympathize with the President’s agenda. Or perhaps this is a typical case of DC-style horsetrading, with Blankfein supporting the White House in exchange for some sort of regulatory favor and Lagarde providing help to Obama in exchange for more subsidies from American taxpayers for the IMF.

3. They understand the issues, but are genuinely afraid that the President is so petty and ideological that he might deliberately force a default, so they are warning about the risks of that approach. Seems totally improbable, but keep in minds that the White House is so petty and spiteful that it has been spending money in a shutdown to keep elderly WWII vets from visiting an open-air memorial!

I’m guessing the second option is most accurate, but there’s no way to know for sure.

In closing, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s America’s biggest long-run economic challenge? Almost surely, the answer is that poorly designed entitlement programs will lead to a much more onerous burden of government spending.

The President made this problem worse with Obamacare (just as Bush made it worse with the prescription drug entitlement).

Advocates of fiscal responsibility want to address this problem now, before we get close to the point of a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

I’m not sure they can win, given the structure of America’s political system, but I’m damn sure glad that at least some people are trying to do what’s best for the country.

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I’m not overly optimistic about the outcome of the government shutdown fight. In part this is because our system of government, based on separation of powers, means it is very difficult to change the status quo.

This system, by the way, generally has been good for the country. It probably helps to explain why the United States has not traveled as rapidly in the wrong direction as other industrialized nations. Simply stated, the left didn’t have easy opportunities to impose bad policies such as a VAT or single-payer government-run healthcare.

But it also means it isn’t easy for supporters of small government to undo expensive policy mistakes such as Obamacare.

But I’m glad some people are trying to do the right thing, even though they not only have to fight Obama, but they also need to overcome a biased media that is serving as an echo chamber for the left’s talking points.

I deal with some of that bias in this interview on Canadian TV. The hosts were very polite and gave me plenty of time to make my points, but all their questions could have been written in the White House communications office.

Here are a few takeaways from that interview.

The fact that Obamacare is the law today does not mean it must be enshrined forever. A lot of folks in the media are regurgitating this White House talking point. I pointed out that the Continuing Resolution also is the law, but maybe I should have pointed out that politicians change the tax code all the time.

As hinted at above, this fight is not a sign of dysfunctional government, but rather is an example of how our Founding Fathers expected Washington to function.

Media Bias ShutdownMedia bias is covering up angst and division on the Democratic side of the aisle. My Democrat friends on the Hill have told me they are worried about being forced to cast votes in favor of provisions such as the special Obamacare exemption for politicians. But as this Glenn McCoy cartoon implies, the press is pushing the left’s narrative rather than reporting the news.

Republicans won a policy victory as a result of the 1995 shutdown fight and they at least fought to a draw in the 1996 elections.

This is a fight to save America from turning into a bankrupt European-style welfare state. Even if that’s an uphill battle, that’s a fight worth having.

Using the example of corrupt agriculture subsidies, I explain that Obamacare won’t work very well, but that doesn’t mean it won’t lure more people into government dependency.

I like to think I did a decent job in this interview, but now it’s time to confess that this isn’t just a battle against Obama and the media.

If we want to shrink the size and scope of government, we also need to prevail against the lobbyist community. This is especially the case in the shutdown fight.

These excerpts from a Politico article reveal how Washington really works.

Though President Barack Obama often blames special interests and Washington lobbyists for the dysfunction and paralysis that plagues Beltway politics, most of the working K Street — and their clients — would like nothing better than for Congress to start working again on the routine business of drafting, debating and passing legislation. …“When Congress doesn’t do things and when Congress is not productive, people who are trying to influence Congress are not productive,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was a top adviser to former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt. …Urban, who was a top staffer to former Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said the latest fight over spending are throwing a wrench in K Street’s bread and butter work of tweaking legislation and attracting new client business. “The wide variety of client business — interests that come to Washington lobby — is now interrupted,” Urban said about the shutdown. …no major pieces of new legislation have moved since the takeover of the House by the GOP in 2010 —putting a big damper on new business development and existing client work. …”Not that we should be doing policymaking on K Street’s behalf,” Gold added. “But that’s the reality.”

In other words, the parasite class in DC wants “business as usual.” They want the government open so they can strike their backroom deals.

This is a perfect illustration of my “First Theorem of Government.” Washington insiders benefit from activist government. It means more money and power for the political class.

And notice how the lobbyists are complaining about less business ever since the 2010 elections. That’s because fewer laws mean fewer opportunities for graft and redistribution, so lobbyists suffer. Which is why I had to correct a massive typo when USA Today wrote that the Tea Party Congress was “unproductive.”

That “unproductive” Congress, by the way, reduced the burden of federal government spending from more than 24 percent of GDP to about 21.5 percent of economic output.

We should all be hoping that the current Congress is equally “unproductive” and we further shrink the burden of government spending and further curtail opportunities for political corruption.

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What’s the likely outcome of the government shutdown fight?

Well, in my libertarian fantasy world, we leave it closed. Or at least we never bother to reopen counterproductive bureaucracies such as the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, etc, etc.

In my realistic/optimistic world, the federal Leviathan remains, but we get some sort of delay for parts of Obamacare.

In my realistic/pessimistic world, the media and the left work together to not only protect Obamacare, but they also get additional spending to circumvent the sequester.

For what it’s worth, I think the final outcome will be somewhere between optimism and pessimism. The government will be funded, including Obamacare, but at lest we protect the sequestration, which was the biggest victory for taxpayers this century.

I’d like to be more hopeful, but Republicans are probably too divided to prevail in this battle.

Which is a shame, because when they had more unity during the 1995 shutdown fight, they won a very important victory. Here’s what I wrote about that battle.

…they succeeded in dramatically reducing the growth of federal spending. They did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but government spending grew by just 2.9 percent during the first four years of GOP control, helping to turn a $164 billion deficit in 1995 into a $126 billion surplus in 1999. And they enacted a big tax cut in 1997.

So let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best. But we’re relying on politicians, so prepare for the worst.

Per tradition, let’s try to close with a laugh. I’ve already shared my collection of government shutdown humor (here, here, and here), but I did get this amusing image in my inbox yesterday, so there’s something new to laugh – or cry – about.

Shutdown Humor

Now there’s an argument for a shutdown! Imagine, no IRS to make our lives miserable. Though let’s not jump to conclusions. Knowing Obama, he’s probably declared that all IRS bureaucrats are “essential personnel.”

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The politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and interest groups in Washington are hyperventilating that the federal gravy train may get sidetracked for a day or two by a shutdown fight between Republicans and Democrats.

I’m not sure why they’re so agitated. After all, the shutdown is really just a slowdown since only non-essential bureaucrats are sent home. And everyone winds up getting paid for those unplanned vacations, which is why the bureaucrats I know are crossing their fingers for a lengthy confrontation.

But that describes what may happen when the new fiscal year begins tomorrow. What’s been happening in recent days, culminating today, is a feeding frenzy of end-of-the-fiscal-year wasteful spending.

Here are some details from a Washington Post expose.

This past week, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork. In a single day, the Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges. And, in a single purchase, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.” …All week, while Congress fought over next year’s budget, federal workers were immersed in a separate frantic drama. They were trying to spend the rest of this year’s budget before it is too late. …If they don’t, the money becomes worthless to them on Oct. 1. And — even worse — if they fail to spend the money now, Congress could dock their funding in future years. The incentive, as always, is to spend. So they spent.

If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll be especially delighted to know that the “use it or lose it” spending orgy is so intense that federal contractors have to cater lunches for their sales staff. Can’t have them away from their desks, after all!

It was the return of one of Washington’s oldest bad habits: a blitz of expensive decisions, made by agencies with little incentive to save. Private contractors — worried that sequestration would result in a smaller spending rush this year — brought in food to keep salespeople at their desks. Federal workers quizzed harried colleagues in the hallways, asking if they had spent it all yet. …“Use it or lose it” season is not marked on any official government calendars. But in Washington, it is as real as Christmas. And as lucrative. …In 2012, for instance, the government spent $45 billion on contracts in the last week of September, according to calculations by the fiscal-conservative group Public Notice. That was more than any other week — 9 percent of the year’s contract spending money, spent in 2 percent of the year.

The IRS may win the prize for the most egregious example of last-minute waste.

In 2010, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service had millions left over in an account to hire new personnel. The money would expire at year’s end. Its solution was not a smart one. The IRS spent the money on a lavish conference. Which included a “Star Trek” parody video starring IRS managers. Which was filmed on a “Star Trek” set that the IRS paid to build. (Sample dialogue: “We’ve received a distress call from the planet NoTax.”)

But it’s not just tax collectors who flush our money down the toilet in creative ways.

One recent study, for instance, found that information technology contracts signed at year’s end often produced noticeably worse results than those signed in calmer times. …they listed dumb things they had seen bought: three years’ worth of staples. Portable generators that never got used. One said the National Guard bought so much ammunition that firing it all became a chore. “When you get BORED from shooting MACHINE GUNS, there is a problem,” an anonymous employee wrote.

Impressive examples of waste, though I confess I’m curious about the part about ammo and the National Guard. Does this mean bullets are like milk and have to be fired before an expiration date?

Beats me, but at least someone in the government acknowledged that (at least up to a point) it’s cool to fire a machine gun. Maybe that person should hook up with the Texas cop who likes tanks.

Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that spendaholic bureaucrats and crafty interest groups keep track of time zones so they can squander money until the very last second.

On Monday, Richer’s people will sell until midnight. Then they will keep selling. “Money rolls across the continent,” the feds say. Cash not spent in Washington might be spent by federal offices in California in the three hours before it is midnight there. When it is midnight in California — 3 a.m. in Washington — they will keep on. There are federal offices in Hawaii, after all. And it will still be three hours until midnight there.

Makes me think that we may need a slogan for the bureaucracy. Perhaps this modification of the Postal Service’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night – nor even different time zones – stays these bureaucrats from spending every possible penny of other people’s money.”

But let’s close on an upbeat note. Whether you give credit to the Tea Party, to Republicans, to gridlock, or to Obama, the good news is that the federal government in the past two years has been wasting money at a slower rate.

So taxpayers can smile…or at least not frown as much. The bureaucracy and contractors may be throwing a party today, but not with the same reckless abandon they displayed between 2001 and 2010.

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One of the big stories from Washington is that there may be another fight over the debt limit, which could mean…gasp, hide the women and children…gridlock, downgrades, government shutdown, default, and tooth decay.

Okay, perhaps not tooth decay, but the DC establishment nonetheless is aghast.

Last year, there were actually two big confrontations between House Republicans and President Obama.

The first fight occurred early in the year and revolved around spending levels for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. I explained in February of that year how advocates of smaller government could prevail in a government shutdown fight, especially since the “essential” parts of the government wouldn’t be affected.

But I wasn’t surprised when GOPers buckled under pressure and accepted a deal that – at best – could be categorized as a kiss-your-sister compromise (and, as I noted elsewhere, our sister wasn’t Claudia Schiffer).

Then we had the big debt limit fight later in the year, which led to absurd claims that failure to increase the debt limit would lead to default – even though the federal government was collecting ten times as much revenue as was needed to pay interest on the debt.

Once again, Republicans were unable to withstand the demagoguery and they basically gave Obama what he wanted after agreeing to a “supercommittee” that was designed to seduce them into a tax increase.

Now the game is about to start over. It’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

Here’s some of what the L.A. Times reported.

Republicans in Congress are heading into summer much the way they did last year — instigating a showdown with the White House by demanding massive federal budget cuts in exchange for what used to be the routine task of raising the nation’s debt limit to pay the government’s bills. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is doubling down on the strategy that ended in mixed results last year after the country came to the brink of a federal default before a deal was struck with President Obama. In that go-round, both sides saw their approval ratings with voters plummet and the nation’s credit was downgraded. …The risk for Republicans is not only in presenting another high-stakes showdown at a time when voters have grown weary of the gridlock in Washington.

The reporter’s assertion that the debt limit fight led to the downgrade is a bit silly, as I explain here, but that’s now part of the official narrative.

On a separate matter, I can’t help but shake my head with frustration that GOPers still haven’t learned that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, and that deficits and debt are symptoms of that problem. Here’s another passage from the L.A. Times story.

“The issue is the debt,” Boehner said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “Dealing with our deficit and our debt would help create more economic growth in the United States and it would lift this cloud of uncertainty that’s causing employers to wonder what’s next.”

No, Mr. Speaker. The problem is spending, spending, spending.

Returning to the main issue, the debt limit isn’t the only big fiscal fight that may happen this year. There will also be the spending bills for the 2013 fiscal year, which starts on October 1 of this year. That will mean another fight, particularly since the left has no intention of abiding by the spending limit that was part of last year’s debt limit deal.

And if Republicans hold firm, that means another “government shutdown.” Though it really should be called a “government slowdown” since it’s only the non-essential bureaucrats who get sent home.

In any event, since I’m glum about the likelihood of anything good happening, let’s at least enjoy some good cartoons from Jeff MacNelly. He passed away a number of years ago, but these cartoons from the mid-1990s are just as applicable today as they were then.

These are amusing cartoons, so long as you don’t actually think about the fact that government is bloated in part because Washington is littered with programs, departments, and agencies that are filled with non-essential bureaucrats. And don’t forget that these bureaucrats are overpaid, getting, on average, twice the compensation of workers in the productive sector of the economy.

But I don’t want to end this post on a sour note, so here are some good jokes from the late-night comics about government shutdowns.

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Well, we didn’t get the shutdown, which I think could have been a key tactic to get more budget cuts, so let’s at least enjoy some one-liners about the topic from the late-night comics.

  • A lot of people wonder what a government shutdown would be like. I think a lot more people wonder what a government running properly would be like. – Jay Leno
  • The shutdown would mean that all non-essential workers would stop coming to work. I’m OK with that. Why do we even have non-essential workers? – Jimmy Kimmel
  • It looks like we’re heading for a government shutdown. And you thought Joe Biden had nothing to do before. – Jay Leno
  • The most embarrassing part is that by the weekend, our government could be shut down, but Moammar Gadhafi’s government could still be working. – Jay Leno
  • Due to the budget impasse, the federal government may shut down next week. There will be another season of “Jersey Shore,” but the U.S. government is still up in the air. – Conan
  • If Congress can’t agree on a budget by midnight Friday, the government will shut down. Democrats are demanding to tax all of the people’s money and use it to fund abortions, while the Republicans want to sell the country to Exxon Mobile and relocate gays to Puerto Rico. – Jimmy Kimmel
  • All government services may be shut down next week, which could really make the DMV inconvenient. – Jimmy Kimmel
  • It turns out the White House might have to lay off staff members if the government shuts down on Friday. It’s really bad news for non-essential workers — you know, interns, pages, Biden . . . – Jimmy Fallon

Last but not least, these aren’t shutdown jokes, but they’re worth sharing.

  • President Obama said he plans on running for re-election against the Republicans. After the tax cuts for the rich, the bailouts for Wall Street, and the bombing in Libya, I already thought he was the Republican candidate. – Jay Leno
  • President Obama announced his re-election campaign, though it’s not really a surprise. He did all the things that make it official: He filed the paperwork, redesigned his website, and printed another fake birth certificate. – Craig Ferguson
  • President Obama’s approval ratings are so low now, Kenyans are accusing him of being born in the United States. – Jay Leno

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There were reports about 10 days ago that the crowd in Washington reached a budget deal, for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, with $33 billion of cuts. That number was disappointingly low. I wrote at the time that if this was a kiss-your-sister deal, we didn’t have any siblings that looked like Claudia Schiffer.

I knew it was unrealistic to expect the full $61 billion, but I explained that $45 billion was a realistic target.

We now have a new agreement, which supposedly is final, and the amount of budget cuts has climbed to $38 billion. So our sister is getting prettier, but she still isn’t close to being a supermodel. Here are the highlights (or lowlights) from the New York Times story.

Congressional leaders and President Obama headed off a shutdown of the government with less than two hours to spare Friday night under a tentative budget deal that would cut $38 billion from federal spending this year. …the budget measure would not include provisions sought by Republicans to limit environmental regulations and to restrict financing for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions.

As with all deals (such as last December’s agreement extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts), there are good and bad provisions. The good news is:

o President Obama, before the current fiscal year began last October 1, wanted a $40 billion increase for these “discretionary” programs. Cutting $38 billion may not be a big number, but it is a step in the right direction. And it is the first time fiscal policy has moved in the right direction in at least 10 years.

o There will be no funding for additional IRS agents. This is a nice victory. Implementing Obamacare would require as many as 16,000 new tax bureaucrats to harass the American people, so at least that process will be stalled.

o A school choice program for Washington, DC, has been restored, thus reversing President Obama’s disgusting decision to kill the program and sacrifice poor black children to advance the greedy interests of the teacher unions.

Now let’s look at the less desirable parts of the agreement.

o Total spending jumped by almost $2 trillion during the Bush-Obama spending binge, so a $38 billion cut is almost too small to mention.

o Left-wing organizations such as Planned Parenthood will continue to feed at the public trough, something that should be objectionable to everyone, regardless of your views on abortion.

o Obamacare is not repealed (not that I ever thought that was possible) and there is no restriction on the EPA’s unilateral assertion that is has regulatory power to implement radical Kyoto-style global warming policies.

I will have more comments this week about what happens next. Suffice to say that this was just one battle in a long war.

The 2012 budget resolution, for instance, will be a key test of fiscal responsibility, but in this case the debate will be about $trillions rather than $billions. The debt limit vote will an opportunity for some much-needed reform of the budget process. And it is quite likely that there will be another potential shutdown fight when it is time to put together appropriations bills for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts October 1.

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Press reports indicate that there is a tentative agreement between Republicans and Democrats to trim $33 billion of spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year. Here are a few blurbs from a story in The Hill.

A source familiar with the talks said members of the Senate and House Appropriations panels are working toward a target of $33 billion in spending cuts. …The $33 billion would be close to the cuts first proposed by House GOP leaders, who moved to $61 billion in proposed cuts under pressure from freshmen in their conference. Policy language defunding the new healthcare law and Planned Parenthood, which conservatives have insisted should be in a final deal, remains a sticking point.

If the final result is anywhere close to $33 billion, this has to be considered a disappointment. I was never under any illusion that GOPers would get $61 billion of cuts. But I was hoping the final number would be somewhere in the range of $45 billion.

To put this in context, the budget for the current fiscal year is $3,800 billion. And that’s almost $2,000 billion higher than it was when Bill Clinton left office. Yet politicians, after a 10-year binge of higher spending, can only find $33 billion of cuts?!?

One Capitol Hill staffer told me that this is a “kiss-your-sister” deal, implying that neither side won or lost. But if that’s the case, then I’m definitely not related to Claudia Schiffer. In this case, my sister is…well, never mind…I don’t want to be snarky.

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Yesterday, I analyzed how the GOP should fight the budget battle, but I may have made a big mistake. I assumed the Republican leadership actually wanted to do the right thing. I thought they learned the right lessons from the disastrous Bush years, and that the GOP no longer would be handmaidens for big government. And I naively assumed that the Republican leadership would not betray the base and stab the Tea Party in the back.

Unfortunately, if this Washington Post story is accurate, that may be what is happening.

Having difficulty finding consensus within their own ranks, House Republican leaders have begun courting moderate Democrats on several key fiscal issues, including a deal to avoid a government shutdown at the end of next week. The basic outline would involve more than $30 billion in cuts for the 2011 spending package, well short of the $61 billion initially demanded by freshman Republicans and other conservatives, according to senior aides in both parties. Such a deal probably would be acceptable to Senate leaders and President Obama as long as the House didn’t impose funding restrictions on certain social and regulatory programs supported by Democrats, Senate and administration aides said.

Having been in Washington for 25 years, I’m not blind to reality. I knew it was never going to be possible to get all $61 billion of cuts. At some point, there would be a compromise. And I also was aware that the GOP “riders” – such as blocking Obamacare, curtailing the EPA’s power grab, and defunding the leeches at Planned Parenthood – were an uphill battle.

But I thought the GOP leadership would fight and get a decent deal rather than unilaterally surrender. If the Washington Post report is true and Republicans act like the French army, it will discourage the base and cause a rift with the Tea Party. So it’s dumb politics and dumb policy.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed, though, and hope this is just a trial balloon that quickly will be shot down.

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Welcome Instapundit readers (and everyone else, of course). I have a very depressing update to this post, which you can read here.

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According to news reports, Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to reach any sort of budget agreement before April 8, when a short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year expires.

Barring some new development, this could mean a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government.

This makes both sides very nervous. Democrats don’t want the spending spigot turned off and are worried that voters might conclude that there’s no reason to ever re-open departments such as Housing and Urban Development. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly worry that they might look unreasonable and get blamed if certain parts of the government are mothballed and voters can’t get passports or visit national parks.

Given this state of play, what’s the best strategy for fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and other advocates of smaller government?

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Republicans should continue with short-term spending bills.

…the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year. There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed.

He’s worried that a more confrontational approach, where the GOP passes a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill, might backfire – even though any shutdown would exist solely because Senator Reid and/or President Obama refused to act.

Would a shutdown give Republicans more muscle in negotiating for cuts? …Maybe it would. But it might not. …So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown. This is a big gamble. …Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010. True enough, the political atmosphere is more favorable to serious spending reductions than it was 16 years ago. …But why take a chance?

I think Barnes is a bit off in his portrayal of what happened in 1995, as I’ve previously explained, but these are all fair points. A “shutdown” fight could be considered uncharted territory.

Keith Hennessey, a former Hill staffer and Bush Administration official, also is skeptical of a confrontational approach. Instead, he suggests that the GOP increase the pressure on Democrats by slowly increasing the amount of weekly spending cuts.

While negotiating with the President’s team and Senate Democrats, in this variant House Republicans continue to pass short-term Continuing Resolutions as long as there is not an acceptable full-year deal. In these repeated future CRs, they ratchet up the spending cuts by the paltry figure of only $100 million each week. …Under this new variant, as April 8th approaches House Republicans would pass another three week CR, one which cuts $2.1 B in its first week, $2.2 B in its second week, and $2.3 B in its third week. …Such a tiny weekly increment would be nearly impossible for Democrats to reject. And yet if continued through the end of this fiscal year, $4.5 B of discretionary spending would be cut in the final week, that of September 23rd. This strategy…poses zero additional risk for Congressional Republicans. They would maintain the high ground on spending cuts and remain on the offensive for the next six months.

There’s a lot to like about Keith’s approach. If successful, he explains, GOPers could wind up with $82 billion of cuts rather than just $61 billion.

But here’s my concern about an incremental strategy. What makes anyone think that the left will go along with short-term spending bills, regardless of whether they cut $2 billion per week, or even more?

Democrats already have agreed to $10 billion of cuts, and even though that’s very trivial when compared to total spending (akin to a couple of french fries out of a Big Mac meal), the pro-spending lobbies and their allies on Capitol Hill are balking at the thought of additional cuts. So while it might be possible to push through a couple of additional short-term spending bills, there will come a point when Democrats refuse to play ball. And when that happens, we’re back to a partial shutdown.

Here’s how constitutional lawyer James Bopp, Jr., explained the issue in a piece for the Washington Times.

A government shutdown is inevitable because President Obama will insist on it. Nothing the Republicans do, short of total capitulation, will prevent this from happening. …With a three-week extension of government funding (which included $6 billion in cuts) expiring April 8, now is the time to escalate one’s bid. Demand $12 billion in cuts the next time. And when the shutdown occurs because of an Obama veto or a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House should keep passing bills to reopen the government, coupling it with more spending cuts. …There is a fundamental contradiction in the Democrats’ shutting down the government. The Democrats are the party of government. It is like a bank robber, caught in the act, who threatens to pull the trigger on himself if arrested; what would the cop say but, “Go ahead”? The government shutdown threat defeats the Democrats own objective and is thus ultimately self-defeating, while the Republicans protect the bank depositors – the taxpayers – from the bank robber.

I think this is largely correct, particularly in that there almost certainly will be a shutdown fight. The only question is when it will happen. And if a shutdown battle is inevitable, advocates of smaller government should decide whether it’s better to have that fight sooner rather than later.

My instinct is that it would be better to fight now. GOP resolve presumably will decrease over time, particularly since the “easy” spending cuts get used up first. Moreover, it is quite likely that a strategy of short-term spending bills will complicate GOP efforts to get budget process reform in a couple of months in exchange for an increase in the debt limit.

Democrats surely don’t want the GOP to have another opportunity to restrain the size of government, so they would insist on an increase in the federal government’s borrowing authority as the price for approving whatever short-term spending bill is being considered around that time. Republicans presumably will balk at that demand. But that brings us back, once again, to a shutdown fight. Only this time, it will be complicated by demagogic assertions of a default.

So long as the final result is a smaller burden of government, there is no right or wrong answer about the process. It’s simply a question of which approach is more likely to achieve the desired outcome. I think fighting now is better than fighting later, but if the GOP chooses a strategy of short-term spending bills, I hope I’m wrong.

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Among advocates of limited government, there is growing unease about the fiscal fight in Washington.

This is not because anything bad has happened. Indeed, Democrats thus far have been acquiescing – at least on a temporary basis – to conservative demands for $61 billion of spending cuts over the rest of the current fiscal year. This is remarkable after 10 years of endlessly expanding government.

Here’s what Jennifer Rubin wrote at her Right Turn blog.

A senior Senate adviser wisecracked, “A month ago, they said they couldn’t possibly cut a dime. Then they said the $4 billion [in] cuts in the first CR were a non-starter. Now they’re bragging about cutting spending?” It is a remarkable turn of events and another sign that Reid was bested in this round of budget battling. Twice now he capitulated to House Republicans.

This analysis is right, and it is very similar to what I wrote back on March 2 regarding the first short-term agreement.

So why, then, am I worried?

I’m nervous because the fiscal fight is evolving in a bad direction. In that March 2 post, I warned that “Republicans should be very careful about having their energy dissipated by a series of diversionary battles over short-run spending bills.”

That prediction, unfortunately, seems to have been rather accurate. Democrats have reluctantly agreed to some spending cuts, but their decisions perhaps could be characterized as a rope-a-dope strategy – tactical retreats designed to regain control over the field of battle and win the ultimate fiscal war.

The elephant in the living room, of course, is the threat of a government shutdown. Republicans seem terrified that they will get blamed if there is a stalemate and this leads to a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government. And they are terrified of this outcome even if they have approved a budget and the stalemate exists solely because Harry Reid has blocked their budget in the Senate and/or Barack Obama has vetoed their budget.

I’ve already explained, in an article for National Review Online, why GOPers should not allow themselves to be blackmailed on this basis. The 1995 shutdown was a big policy success. Republicans did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but the final result was real fiscal restraint – a four-year period where government spending grew by an average of less than 3 percent.

Moreover, the shutdown was hardly a political setback. Democrats on Capitol Hill were defecting to the GOP side during the fight, and the political people in the Clinton Administration were genuinely concerned that they might not be able to sustain the President’s veto. Some GOP political operatives thought, after the fight was over, that they lost because Clinton polled better than Gingrich, but this certainly didn’t keep Republicans from comfortably holding the House in 1996 and actually picking up seats in the Senate.

So what happens now? Republicans basically have two choices of how to proceed. Both options have some risk, but one approach almost surely leads to failure.

1. Draw a line in the sand and pass a strong budget with cuts and meaningful reforms, even if it means the Democrats block the spending bill and cause a shutdown.

Upsides – This approach is more likely to lead to an outcome that reduces the burden of government spending. Moreover, it surely would trigger more activism from libertarians, conservatives, and other supporters of limited government. A victory based on this approach (or even a draw) creates momentum for both the FY2012 budget resolution battle and the debt limit fight.

Downsides – The left, including the establishment press, will portray the GOP negatively. More specifically, they will claim Republicans are “shutting down the government” because of supposedly extraneous issues like abortion (i.e., the funding controversy over Planned Parenthood), the environment (the debate over the “rider” provision to curtail the EPA’s power grab), or healthcare (defunding Obamacare).

2. Do everything possible to avoid a shutdown, even if it means higher spending and no reform.

Upsides – There is no risk of being blamed for a shutdown.

Downsides – This French-army approach basically means that Republicans give up on fiscal policy for the next 21 months. Surrendering to avoid a shutdown means the burden of spending is higher. It means no program reforms or eliminations. Because of this precedent, it is highly unlikely that the GOP could attach meaningful fiscal conditions to the debt limit. Similarly, the loss of momentum would carry over to the budget resolution, undermining chances for fiscal reform in the 2012 fiscal year budget. Last but not least, the “base” would be very disappointed as activists from the Tea Party and elsewhere begin to conclude that fighting against big government is a fool’s errand.

Even in the most ideal scenario, using the line-in-the-sand strategy, fiscal conservatives in the House will not get everything they want. The real issue is which side has the upper hand in the negotiations.

The fight-rather-than-surrender approach gives the GOP leverage. They almost surely won’t get $61 billion of cuts, but they’ll be much closer to that number than with the French-army approach. They won’t succeed with all the “riders,” but they’ll make progress – perhaps temporarily setting aside the Obamacare issue in exchange for clipping the EPA’s wings, or gutting Planned Parenthood but letting NPR off the hook.

Politicians inevitably are worried about the political consequences of any strategy. That’s harder to judge, but they can protect themselves by not making it seem as if they welcome a partial shutdown. I explained in the National Review article that there are several lesson that Republicans can learn from 1995 that can help them prevail in 2011.

First and foremost, Republicans should keep passing bills to reopen the entire government. They should stress that they want the government open and explain that it is only closed because of Harry Reid’s obstinate support for big government and/or Barack Obama’s use of his veto pen on behalf of special interests. …Keep passing bills to reopen the parts of the government that voters actually care about, such as VA hospitals, the Social Security Administration, and national parks. …Remember that a government shutdown generally puts more financial pressure on the Left. If there is a lengthy showdown, Democratic constituencies begin to squeal. …In 1995, Republicans had to deal with a very hostile press corps. There was no Fox News, no Internet as we know it today, and no cadre of talk-radio hosts to augment Rush Limbaugh. So while it is true that CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post will regurgitate Democratic talking points, many voters will have access to conservative news sources, something that was not the case in 1995.

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In this discussion on Larry Kudlow’s show, I reiterate the central point from my National Review article and explain that the government shutdown in 1995 led to real fiscal restraint. If that was a loss for the GOP, I hope they lose again this year.

But will this happen? If Republicans don’t surrender, a shutdown is inevitable. The Democrats clearly have adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, hoping GOPers will preemptively compromise. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Washington Times.

A top Senate Democrat said Sunday that the $6 billion in additional spending cuts that his party offered is the limit Democrats can accept — drawing a line well short of Republicans’ goal with less than two weeks to go before a government shutdown if the two sides can’t agree. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said the $6 billion proposal, released Friday, has “pushed this to the limit” on domestic spending. …Meanwhile, the Senate’s top Republican said his talks with President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. show that the White House is not serious about tackling longer-term spending challenges, making it difficult for Congress to work with the president. …“I’ve had plenty of conversations with them. What I don’t see now is any willingness to do anything that’s difficult,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on CBS‘ “Face the Nation” program. “So far, I don’t see the level of seriousness that we need.”

There’s no reason why Republicans should unilaterally compromise, but I’m worried. One major problem for the GOP is a misguided focus on red ink. Too many people, including Senators, Representatives, pundits, and policy wonks, keep talking about deficits and debt. Government borrowing is not desirable, but red ink is merely a symptom of excessive spending.

This is why all the focus should be about controlling the size and scope of Washington. That’s not only smart economics, it’s also astute politics. If the short-term question is how to save $61 billion from FY2011 spending levels and the long-term question is how to cap federal government spending at 20 percent of GDP, higher taxes obviously are not relevant.

But if Republicans keep talking about deficits and debt, that automatically puts tax increases on the table. And the primary long-run goal of the Democrats is to seduce GOPers into going along with a tax increase.

The next thing to watch for is what happens, presumably later today, when the Senate votes on the House plan and the Democrat’s proposal. The Associated Press is probably correct that these are key test votes.

The Senate appears likely to reject both a slashing GOP budget bill and a less ambitious Democratic alternative. …Neither measure can muster the 60 votes required under Senate procedures to advance; not a single Democrat is likely to vote for the GOP measure, and some may shy away from the Democratic bill as well. That could put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as other congressional leaders of both parties to find a compromise. …By the same standard, the vote on the Senate Democratic alternative — it would cut about $5 billion from domestic agencies compared with about $60 billion under the House GOP plan — is unlikely to get unanimous support from Democrats, especially moderates up for re-election in 2012.

What Republicans need to understand is that they hold the trump card. Taxpayers will save much more than $61 billion if Democratic obstinacy results in a government shutdown.

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A large number of Democrats voted with Republicans in the House yesterday to pass a two-week spending bill that includes $4 billion in cuts compared to what Obama requested. This is a modest victory for the GOP since they can truthfully claim that they are on target to impose the equivalent of $100 billion of cuts over a full fiscal year.

And it appears the Senate will go along with the House proposal, as reported today by the Washington Post.

The deal, which eliminates dozens of earmarks and a handful of little-known programs that President Obama has identified as unnecessary, sailed through the House on a 335 to 91 vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who initially resisted including any cuts in a short-term funding extension, predicted that it will pass that chamber as early as Wednesday.

Some people correctly note that a $4 billion cut is trivial since government spending has ballooned by $2 trillion during the Bush-Obama spending binge – especially since at least some of the supposed spending cut is based on the dishonest Washington practice of measuring “cuts” on the basis of how much Obama wanted to spend rather than nominal changes from one year to the next. Nonetheless, it is a very positive development that the conversation has shifted from “how much should spending be increased?” to “how much should spending be cut?”

That being said, the battle is far from over. Indeed, the GOP began the 1995 shutdown fight in good shape. As I explained in a recent National Review article, a significant number of congressional Democrats sided with Republicans and it appeared that Clinton was on the defensive.

But GOPers ultimately did not get everything they wanted that year, in part because Clinton and the Democrats were able to regroup when the government was temporarily re-opened for a three-week period. Democrats today presumably view the current two-week agreement as a similar opportunity to make a short-term tactical retreat in hopes of winning bigger battles in the future (not just the fight over FY2011 spending levels, but also the upcoming FY2012 budget resolution debate and the debt limit conflict in June or July).

In other words, Republicans should be very careful about having their energy dissipated by a series of diversionary battles over short-run spending bills. At the very least, they need to insist that all such bills include pro-rated spending cuts to fulfill their promise of reducing Obama’s request by $100 billion.

At some point, perhaps when the two-week agreement expires, Democrats will balk at that tiny level of fiscal discipline. And if Republicans also hold firm, this means a government shutdown. Obama and Reid will imply this is somehow the fault of the GOP, but the Washington Post story suggests that recycling the 1995 strategy may not be very successful for the left.

Republicans bore the brunt of the blame that time. A Washington Post poll released this week suggested that this time, voters would apportion fault about equally to both parties. What has changed? The state of the economy is far more precarious than it was in the mid-1990s, the deficit is 10 times as large, and the public’s confidence in elected officials is even lower. …But if the politics of a shutdown are in many ways more treacherous than they were in 1995, the actual effects of one would probably be less disruptive. Indeed, so many things have now been declared essential services that the government might “shut down” without most Americans noticing much difference. As happened in 1995, air traffic controllers would still watch the skies. And a wider swath of military, diplomatic and national security personnel would stay on the job to deal with concerns in a post-9/11 world. …Therein lies the paradox under all the talk of a shutdown. Privately, some Democrats say they fear that a closure that barely affects the daily lives of most Americans could bolster conservatives’ argument that much of what the government does is unnecessary.

The final sentence of this excerpt is key. Would anybody (other than interest groups with snouts in federal trough) notice or care if the Department of Housing and Urban Development was shut down? Is anybody going to lose sleep if the Department of Energy is in hibernation?

In other words, a “government shutdown” would reveal that most of the “non-essential” parts of government are not necessary in the short run or the long run.

This is why Republicans, if they are reasonably astute, hold the upper hand in the current negotiations. They should speak softly and sound reasonable, but carry the big stick of a shutdown in order to ensure that the spending cut target for FY2011 spending is not eroded. And if they prevail, that will have a very positive carryover effect on the looming fights on the FY2012 budget resolution as well as the debt limit.

One final comment about the Washington Post report. The story asserts, in the excerpt below, that Clinton had fiscal credibility because he imposed a tax increase in 1993. But as I have already explained, that tax increase was a miserable failure and even Clinton’s own OMB forecast, made 18 months after the tax increase was adopted, showed permanent deficits of more than $200 billion.

Obama, who has overseen an expansion in spending, does not have the fiscal credibility that helped give President Bill Clinton the winning political hand in 1995 and 1996. Clinton invested significant political capital in reducing the deficit, first by passing his 1993 economic package, which included tax increases.

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When existing spending authority expires on March 4, the “non-essential” parts of the federal government will shut down unless Republicans and Democrats reach an agreement. This is causing lots of agitation in Washington, both by Democrats who don’t want the money spigots in the off position and Republicans who fret that they will be blamed for (gasp) gridlock.

I have a new piece at National Review that explains how the GOP can win this fight. Indeed, I explain that Republicans actually did a pretty good job during the 1995 fight, even though they now have negative memories of the experience. This excerpt provides my basic assessment, but the full article has lots of additional information, including quotes from news accounts in 1995 showing that the GOP held the upper hand, as well as four specific recommendation of how advocates of limited government can do even better this year.

With the GOP-led House and the Democratic Senate and White House far apart on a measure to pay the federal government’s bills past March 4, Washington is rumbling toward a repeat of the 1995 government-shutdown fight (actually two shutdown fights, one in mid-November of that year and the other in mid-December). This makes some Republicans nervous. They think Bill Clinton “won” the blame game that year, and they’re afraid they will get the short end of the stick if there is a 1995-type impasse this year. A timid approach, though, is a recipe for failure. It means that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can sit on their hands, make zero concessions, and wait for the GOP to surrender any time a deadline approaches. In other words, budget hawks in the House have no choice. They have to fight. But they can take comfort in the fact that this is not a suicide mission. The conventional wisdom about what happened in November of 1995 is very misleading. Republicans certainly did not suffer at the polls. They lost only nine House seats, a relatively trivial number after a net gain of 54 in 1994. They actually added to their majority in the Senate, picking up two seats in the 1996 cycle. More important, they succeeded in dramatically reducing the growth of federal spending. They did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but government spending grew by just 2.9 percent during the first four years of GOP control, helping to turn a $164 billion deficit in 1995 into a $126 billion surplus in 1999. And they enacted a big tax cut in 1997. If that’s what happens when Republicans are defeated, I hope the GOP loses again this year.

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