Saturday, December 29, 2018

This Partial Shutdown is the new Sequester

In 2011, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Budget Control Act into law. This legislation created a “super committee” to reach a grand compromise on spending under threat of sequestration. Both parties went along with this because the establishment on both sides agreed sequestration would be unthinkable and therefore would never happen.

The super committee's deadline came and went, and sequestration went into effect. While Washington can argue about whose idea sequestration was originally, the point is conservative thinking about and understanding of recent federal budget history was insufficiently understood, and that's why something not expected to happen, happened.

During the last round of presidential debates, the left tried to paint conservatives as unreasonable by noting they would not even accept a compromise of a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases to balance the budget. The reason is because conservatives have learned their lesson: They've seen that one side of that ratio is imaginary and the other is very real. That is, the tax increases happen now while the spending cuts were always only promised to happen in 10 years. (Maybe that's where the left got the number.) Conservatives got played by this technique for far too long, and they are done. You could promise 1000-to-1 dollars of spending cuts, and they wouldn't take the bait.

Enter the sequester. The Budget Control Act finally put real teeth into the promise of cutting federal spending. For the first time in a long time, conservatives were finally able to deliver on their promise of really cutting federal spending—now, not supposedly in 10 years. To conservatives, this is not unthinkable; this is the promised land.

That same kind of pent-up demand for federal spending cuts is now fueling the determination behind this partial shutdown of the federal government. Ironically, this time the conservatives want more federal spending. (It's not as though they see no role for the federal government.) The question now becomes: Who loses the most with the government partially closed?

With previous full shutdowns of the federal government (in years when none of the annual appropriations bills had passed on time), both sides felt a vested interest that at least certain parts of the federal government remained fully funded and operating. For conservatives it's usually the military, and for Democrats it's the whole thing. For fiscal year 2019, after President Trump promised to never again sign an omnibus appropriations bill, funding for Defense (a priority for the right) and HHS (a priority for the left) has already been funded along with a few others. That's why this is only a “partial shutdown.” This removes the political pressure points that traditionally have pushed Congress and the President to quickly reopen the federal government because now we're just talking about funding and reopening “the rest of” the federal government, at least for the rest of this fiscal year which ends September 30, 2019.

The Obama Administration's approach to a shutdown was to make federal services and property as difficult to access as possible, including barricading memorials on the National Mall. Conservatives later characterized this as “weaponizing” the shutdown. The Trump Administration is intentionally taking the opposite approach, trying to make a shutdown as user-friendly as possible, for instance national parks and properties being open simply with fewer staff on hand. If conservatives in Congress are pressured into weighing fewer tour guides against more border security, guess which one they'll choose.

During a shutdown federal employees are divided into essential and non-essential. Non-essential employees stay home, and often later get paid. (The Senate has already passed back-pay for this shutdown, though with the change of Congress on January 3, that legislation becomes moot.) Essential employees are expected to show up and work without getting paid until the government is fully funded and reopens. With past shutdowns this was not a huge issue for them other than some envy of their non-essential counterparts who in the end got bonus paid time off and they didn't.

This time could be different. Without political pressure points to bring this to a speedy conclusion, how long those unpaid federal employees stay on the job could become an issue. Administrative directives to keep the partial shutdown as non-disruptive as possible could become hollow.

Both categories of federal employees will have questions to weigh: How long can they cover the cost of living or working with their savings? For those not working, will Congress actually pass back-pay if their agency shutdown continues from weeks into months? At what point must they begin considering other employment options? How current is their resume? Maybe working for the federal government isn't the stable job they thought it would be. Conservatives generally do not have hesitations about federal government employees facing these questions.

Those in favor of a more active federal government can be expected to take a very marketing-heavy approach to the “essential” services of the federal government. Weather and food are two prime targets.

The National Weather Service, under the not-yet-funded Department of Commerce, possibly not providing warnings of floods, snow storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other threats can expect a lot of attention. Everyone wants to know about the weather, and NWS is often cited as the authoritative source of information, even if it comes through private sector channels.

Food is a bit more indirect. Other than the occasional recall, the federal government's role with our food supply is far less visible. Nonetheless, we can expect a free education on the merits of food inspection, labeling, agriculture subsides, crop insurance, and the role the federal government has in our food supply.

People not on the job in those roles would generate attention, though even then the thought of less regulation of basics like food is not entirely objectionable for conservatives. This partial shutdown may eventually be forced into a less user-friendly mode before either side begins to feel much pressure. (Without depending on the federal government for these needs, we could get a more transparent view of the meaning of Job 36:31.)

Conservatives have indicated their criteria for compromising on wall funding: Would the administration have flexibility on how funds are used, that is, to actually build a real wall. In the past, border security funding has typically excluded that option. At the very least conservatives want work to begin.

The public deserves to understand why conservatives are not willing to go along with the usual establishment willingness to punt on the subject with a CR and maintain the status quo. The bottom line is conservatives know they can get more from Democrats because they've gotten more in the past. The problem with those past offers was conservatives didn't want to accept any of the immigration policy changes by which Democrats were conditioning their agreement for funds to build a wall.

If Democrats want the rest of the federal government funded, the most effective thing to do for their purposes at this point would be to look at their immigration policy wish list, figure out which are least objectionable to conservatives, and then push for some kind of change in that area. (Hopefully not biometric tracking.) What they should not do is underestimate the willingness of conservatives to let the work of the federal government crumble and disintegrate while they continue to insist on real, tangible, visible action on the border.

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