Shutdown reminder

The government shutdown has reminded me of a few things that I might have forgotten had the government stayed open as it is supposed to. 

I am reminded that when the government shuts down, it doesn’t really shut down. In fact, because Congress has largely turned the responsibility of governing on autopilot, about 75 percent of the government keeps operating as if nothing were going to happen. Most of that comes from mandatory spending, such as on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and — isn’t this ironic — ObamaCare. 

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I am reminded that while the country is probably more divided politically than at any time since the Civil War, as Dan Balz pointed out in The Washington Post yesterday, irresponsible leadership can make a bad situation worse. President Obama and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are prime examples. The president says he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling; the senator from Texas says that he won’t allow the government to function without defunding ObamaCare. Neither of these characters has thought through an endgame, tried to find common ground or realized the implications of their irresponsible posturing. 

I am reminded that it is far better to have a positive agenda than to be relentlessly negative. In 1995, House Republicans pushed for a balanced budget, welfare reform, pro-growth tax cuts and entitlement reform. Today, Tea Party Republicans demand that ObamaCare be repealed, and that’s just about it. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker, could make a plausible case that his agenda would make America a stronger country and a better place to live. Former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), now president of the Heritage Foundation, just wants ObamaCare to be Obama’s Waterloo. 

I am reminded that politicians can get away with shameless hypocrisy as long as they are completely shameless about it. When Obama was a senator and announced that he would vote against a debt limit increase, he said that raising the debt limit was a “sign of leadership failure” and another reflection of “the government’s reckless fiscal policies.” Earlier this year, he said in a press conference, “I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult, and budgets in this town are always difficult.” So, instead of working with the House Speaker to help deliver the votes to pass a debt limit, which he himself voted against and he himself acknowledged was historically always difficult, he says that he won’t negotiate and that the House and Senate have to pass a clean debt-limit extension. The hypocrisy astounds. 

I am reminded that when the government shuts down, if you are a House or Senate member, you should avoid the press at all costs. Don’t complain about your salary. Don’t castigate a park ranger. Don’t make jokes because nothing is funny. Don’t explain why you should get paid while the pay for the U.S. Capitol Police is delayed (your salary may be protected in the Constitution, but that explanation doesn’t fly with an angry constituent). Just hunker down in your office and keep working. That’s the best advice I can give to any member during a shutdown. Keep your powder dry. 

I am reminded that the national parks, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Smithsonian are very popular tourist destinations, and perhaps we should include those who work in the Park Service as essential personnel. Ditto for people who work at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It turns out that the government does a lot of pretty interesting and important work, and when the Congress can’t get its act together to keep the government opened, it makes the American people really, really angry. 

For a Congress whose approval ratings hover in the high teens, that’s dangerous. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.