Framing the debate on spending

Mark Impomeni Contributor
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As the clock ticks closer to Friday’s deadline for funding current government operations, voices on the left and in the media grow ever louder and shrill at the prospect of a government “shutdown.” Note the scare quotes in use there, because in reality what happens if Congress cannot agree on spending levels for the current fiscal year is anything but what the term “shutdown” implies.

Republicans are on the right side of the argument in principle and are in line with the political mood in the country. As evidenced by the GOP’s overwhelming victory in November, Americans want Congress to cut federal spending. Republicans campaigned on it, and the voters expect them to keep their promises.

So why, then, does a recent Gallup poll show that 6 in 10 Americans do not favor a government “shutdown” in lieu of an agreement to cut spending? The answer is in the framing.

Republicans can’t win a debate on spending while accepting the Democrats’ use of terms. Republicans in the House leadership have been fighting a rear-guard action, bending over backwards to assure the public that a “shutdown” is not the goal of their pursuit of spending cuts. If Republicans want to win the debate on spending, they have to go on offense and change the terms of the argument. Republicans need to frame the debate in a way that more accurately reflects what will really happen on Friday at midnight if the government “shuts down.”

First off, there have been 17 government “shutdowns” since 1977. One more would hardly be a novel event. There is even a process for implementing a shutdown spelled out in an Office of Management and Budget memorandum dating back to 1980. When the government “shuts down,” non-essential federal employees are furloughed until a budget or funding agreement is in place. The federal government does not actually shut down. Only non-essential functions of government cease. Essential services continue.

A Congressional Research Service report lists the functions the OMB defines as essential. Included in these are: activities to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials; air traffic control and other transportation safety functions; border and coastal protection and surveillance; protection of federal lands, buildings and property; care of prisoners; law enforcement and criminal investigations; emergency and disaster assistance; production of power and maintenance of the power distribution system; preservation of the money and banking system, including borrowing and tax collection; and protection of research property.

That’s a whole lot of government for a “shutdown,” and that list doesn’t include defense, intelligence, and other national security agencies and operations, which would also continue unabated.

Rather than buy into the Democrats’ framing of the issue, which essentially paints the situation as a choice between spending and chaos, Republicans need to stress all that would not happen in the event that a funding deal is not reached. Republicans and their supporters should use the term “essential operations mode” to describe the result of their principled objection to continuing perversely high federal spending levels.

For example: “If the House and Senate cannot reach an agreement on spending levels, the government will go into essential operations mode beginning on Saturday.”

This frame more correctly describes what will actually happen: Social Security checks will continue to be delivered; the Armed Forces worldwide will remain on station; planes will take off and land; monies will continue to come in to the Treasury; jails will remain locked; and banks will remain open.

Moreover, the essential operations mode frame places the focus on all of the functions of the federal government that are by definition not essential, such as the EPA, the Department of Education, HUD, an alphabet soup of federal boards and commissions, and the like.

This framing would make it very difficult for Democrats and their media enablers to throw around the usual charges that Republicans want to starve seniors, foul the air and water, and bring back the horse and buggy.

A recent Rasmussen poll proves that this framing works. Rasmussen found that nearly 6 in 10 likely voters favor a “partial government shutdown” over funding the government at last year’s levels. Critics of the Rasmussen result attack the poll for its framing, and hold up Gallup’s result as the true measure of the public’s sentiment on the question. But it is Gallup’s question that does not accurately describe the issue, offering respondents a choice between an implied total “government shutdown” and a budget compromise.

Republicans won in November by campaigning confidently on cutting government spending. Now, in order to win the battle of the budget, they need to regain that confidence and go on the offensive. They must argue from strength and not lend credibility to Democrats’ arguments by accepting their terms. “Essential operations mode” should be the new “shutdown.”

Mark Impomeni is a conservative opinion writer, blogger, and contributing editor at RedState.com.