Playing chicken with the federal budget

At first glance, this may suggest that the risks of a shutdown are not particularly large. However, economic conditions were significantly better in the mid-1990s than they are today. Neither side knows with certainty who the public would blame in the event of a government shutdown, or whether the public response would be more substantial given concerns over economic conditions and the deficit. Despite the possible downsides, the effect of uncertainty regarding who would be blamed (and to what extent), may lead both parties to risk a government shutdown rather than pursue a compromise.

Public opinion polls further highlight the uncertainty both parties face as neither has a clear upper hand. Recent polls by Gallup (2011) indicate that public opinion is on the side of reaching a compromise and avoiding a budget shutdown. In a question that asks whether people in government should “hold out for the basic budget plan they want, even if it means the government shuts down, or should they agree to a compromise budget plan, even if that means they pass a budget you disagree with?”, 60% of respondents chose compromise. 

The same Gallup poll found that neither party holds a substantial edge in public support on either their proposed budget or their handling of budget dealings. Pluralities of respondents say that that neither the Democratic or Republican plans go far enough to cut spending. Although this may appear to strengthen the Republican’s bargaining position, since they are seeking larger cuts, the public does not overwhelmingly favor Republican efforts. 

When asked about who is doing a better job in the current efforts to agree on a new federal budget, 39% of the respondents sided with Obama and the Democrats in Congress, while 42% sided with Republicans in Congress (Gallup 2011 “Neither Party has Edge on Federal Budget Dealings.” February 24, 2011. http://www.gallup.com/poll/146315/Neither-Party-Edge-Federal-Budget-Deal...).

If neither party has the upper hand in public opinion, and both parties face risks of a drop in public support if a government shutdown occurs, why hasn’t a compromise been reached? Possible reasons are the campaign promises by Republicans to cut $100 billion, the constituencies that benefit from federal funds, and the permanent campaign that exists in American politics. 

Democrats in particular, have key electoral constituencies that benefit from the funds that are being considered for cuts – Planned Parenthood, nutrition programs for women and infants, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, among others. 

This is not to say that Republican constituencies do not benefit from federal funds but, rather, to highlight the cuts that are being considered by the Republicans and the tough electoral spot they create for Democrats in accepting those cuts. More generally, however, the permanent campaign in politics limits the incentives to compromise. Politicians never take a break from campaigning to merely govern. 

Rather, campaigning and governing are woven together, particularly in the House where election cycles are every two years. The result of this pattern is that each side is incentivized to pursue partisan strategies to differentiate their party from the opposition, to fulfill campaign promises, and to push against compromise lest they be seen as too similar. Although we often think of elections as ensuring representation and accountability, elections also ensure partisanship.

Laurel Harbridge is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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