By Russell Berman - 03/30/11 10:00 AM EDT
Conservatives are turning to a new message in the escalating budget fight: A government shutdown is not actually a shutdown.
It’s a “slowdown,” according to the new refrain from Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Or as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put it on Monday, the stalemate over spending could cause the government “to partially shut down.”
Democrats feel confident it is Republicans who will be blamed if there is a shutdown, and already argue that calling it by another name won’t help the GOP escape voter ire.
“Calling it New Coke didn’t make it taste better, and trying to change the name of Speaker [John] Boehner’s [R-Ohio] government shutdown won’t make it hurt middle-class families and seniors any less,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Republicans are not uniformly avoiding the word “shutdown,” but the qualifiers that have cropped up in recent days suggest they are taking their cues from conservative and Tea Party activists, who for weeks have argued that a government shutdown is a misnomer because so many essential services would keep running in the absence of a budget agreement.
“It’s more accurate to call it a slowdown, not a shutdown,” said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Most government agencies and programs would continue running. Most government employees would continue working.”
Those agencies and programs include services providing for national security and defense, public health, air traffic control, emergency assistance and law enforcement. Nearly 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or worked without pay during the two government shutdowns of 1995-96, according to a report issued in February by the Congressional Research Service. But a report by the Government Accountability Office found that across a range of federal departments and agencies, including the departments of Justice, State and Veterans Affairs, more than 60 percent of employees were exempted from the furloughs.
“It’s not catastrophic. It would not harm the economy,” Riedl said.
Democratic leaders have made the opposite argument, warning of the adverse consequences of a shutdown for struggling Americans and pointing to the billions in reported lost revenue and economic output that occurred in the shutdowns of the 1990s.
“I think people should be careful about being too loose in terms of talking about a government shutdown, because this has — this is not an abstraction,” President Obama said in late February, at the outset of the budget impasse. “People don’t get their Social Security checks. They don’t get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And it … would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery. It would be destabilizing at a time when, I think, everybody is hopeful that we can start growing this economy quicker.”
For Tea Party activists, the distinction is part of their push for Republican leaders to hold the line and demand even deeper spending cuts to keep the government running. A shutdown, or slowdown, is not preferable, but it’s not the end of the world, either, the argument goes.
Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler told The Hill that “linguistically,” it is correct to describe a shutdown as a “slowdown,” since it more accurately reflects what will happen.
He said that “it might be necessary” to have such a slowdown in order to convince Democrats to embrace the $61 billion in cuts that House Republicans passed earlier this year.
“There is an appetite for sending a message,” he said of Tea Party followers. He added, however, that he is not advocating a shutdown.
In an interview with The Hill last month, Bachmann, the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus and a potential presidential candidate, warned in unequivocal terms against a government shutdown, saying it would be “an admission of failure” by leaders in Congress.
But after voting against two stopgap spending measures, Bachmann added a new component to her talking points on the budget. Speaking to ABC News late last week, she reiterated that “no one wants to see the government shut down.” She quickly added, however: “But I also think it’s important for people to know what a government slowdown — because that’s what it is — the government does not shut down. It’s important for your viewers to know the truth about this.”
Republicans have claimed for weeks that Democrats are “rooting” for a shutdown because they believe it will benefit them politically. “In the scope of our debt crisis, if Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] force the government to partially shut down over these sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable,” Cantor said in a statement Monday.
Asked about the reality of a shutdown on Tuesday, Cantor responded that “certainly it’s bad.”
“We’ve said all along that we don’t want a government shutdown — partial, slowdown, whatever you call it,” he said. “We all know that there are steps that can be taken to insist on essential services. I don’t think anyone here wants to deny our troops the ability to get paid, so again, we ought not be thinking that it’s not that bad.”
Boehner’s office declined to wade into the debate over whether a shutdown is really just a slowdown. “Our goal is certainly to avoid one, whatever you call it,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Erik Wasson contributed to the story.