In Washington and around the country, conservatives are going on the anti-spending warpath, delighting the Tea Party base with tough talk and confrontational tactics. The amazing scenes from Madison, engineered by new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are emboldening GOPers elsewhere (notably in Ohio and Indiana) to go to the barricades in demanding pay and benefit concessions, if not actual suicide, from public employees and their unions. And in Congress, a government shutdown is beginning to look like a virtual certainty, quite possibly accompanied by the drama of a debt limit collision.
The internal conservative debate on these subjects is being heavily dominated by those counseling “no retreat,” and laboring mightily to explain why a hard-core approach that threatens the daily functioning of government won’t turn out as it did for the short-lived Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s.
But amidst all the dramatics over spending, it’s increasingly obvious that conservatives have a lot of other fish to fry, and are using their demands for big cutbacks in public-sector spending to impose policies and priorities that have little or nothing to do with money.
This is most obvious in Wisconsin, where Walker’s demands go beyond pay and benefit concessions from public employees and aim at severely restricting collective bargaining rights. Walker and his defenders, of course, claim that no path of budget austerity is compatible with the existence of strong public employee unions. That’s another way of saying it’s possible to relate all sorts of ideological objectives as having an impact on spending. Interestingly, two Republican governors close to this particular fire, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Florida’s Rick Scott (the latter state is not close geographically to Wisconsin, but is similar in the scope of its gubernatorially-induced budget crisis) have conspicuously parted ways with Walker on demanding non-financial concessions from public employee unions.
An even more obvious ideological aspect of state budget “crises” is the determination of nearly all GOP governors to cut taxes and/or create new corporate subsidies even as they claim there’s just no money for spending they don’t particularly favor in the first place. Walker, in particular, is insisting on both tax cuts and new “economic development incentives” (e.g., public concessions for companies moving into the state) that have significantly worsened the fiscal situation. So, too, has Florida’s Scott, who is also demanding a major new private school voucher initiative.
The overlap of ideological and fiscal priorities is even more obvious in Washington. The FY 2011 continuing appropriations resolution passed by the House last weekend is loaded with long-time conservative hobby-horses, including an end to public broadcasting, severe cutbacks in funding for bank regulators and food inspectors, plus an unprecedented assault on federal support for family planning services, including a total ban on use of federal money by Planned Parenthood and an end to the Title X program that funds many clinics dispensing contraceptives. Echoing the confrontations in Madison, the bill also slashed funding for the National Labor Relations Board by one-third, and 176 House Republicans voted to kill the NLRB altogether. Meanwhile, Republicans are leaving the Pentagon budget largely alone.
Since the House CR is primarily symbolic, the real tale of the tape will be in the internal priorities Republicans set in negotiations with Senate Democrats and the White House. But GOP leaders are under intense pressure from the large majority of its Members from the arch-conservative Republican Study Group, and from Tea Party-oriented freshmen, to use budget cuts to completely change the scope as well as the size of the federal government.
Most interestingly, there is a growing sense that House conservatives and the right-wing chattering classes are increasingly favoring a federal government shutdown (which will happen on March 4 if no agreement is reached on the CR or on a short-term stopgap, which Republicans say they will oppose unless it incorporate major spending cuts) not just as a negotiating tactic, but as an end in itself. Highly influential anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist has been explicit about what he sees as the political advantage Republicans would derive from a shutdown: “Obama will be less popular if — in the service of overspending and wasting people’s money — he closes the government down, as opposed to now, when he’s just wasting people’s money.”
More to the point, Republican leaders would like to get rid of the RINO label as soon as possible and earn the trust of Tea Party types. It’s even possible that they are powerless to act otherwise (particularly given the example set by Walker in Wisconsin) or will be forced to engineer a shutdown in order to head off the more economically-consequential defeat of a debt limit measure.
In any event, conservatives are busy reassuring GOP pols that a shutdown won’t produce the sort of political damage the brief 1995 shutdown incurred. They are typically blaming the 1995 setback on Newt Gingrich’s clumsiness, Bill Clinton’s diabolical political skills, the post-Oklahoma City backlash against government-hating, the malice of the pre-Fox “liberal media”—all ingredients that are missing from today’s impending confrontation. All these psychological factors should be kept in mind in assessing what happens before, on, and after March 4.