The famous thinker and writer Robert Heinlein said that every generation thinks they invented sex. The even more well-known Jeff Foxworthy added that it is the “stupidest assumption in the world, because if that was the case, you wouldn’t even be here.”
Our thinking about today’s battles in Congress is no different. It’s not that elected officials have never thought about cutting spending before or balancing the budget. It’s simply a difficult undertaking.
There is, however, a strategic approach and a brick wall approach to forcing the government to live within a framework we can afford. The brick wall approach says run at the brick wall and show everyone the wounds from the immovable object. The strategic approach notes that you can go around or over the wall and actually get to your destination.
While Republicans have flirted with the brick wall approach a bit this year, it appears the strategic approach is winning. For example, instead of repeating the mistakes made 15 years ago by Newt Gingrich in his unsuccessful effort to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has deftly targeted National Public Radio, where a strong case for defunding can be made due to NPR’s bungling of the Juan Williams episode and the most recent comments by Ron Schiller, NPR’s chief fundraiser.
And the approach to funding the government that GOP leaders have been taking so far this year has been masterful. The Republican leaders have offered short-term bills that contained billions in spending cuts. With much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, the Senate has been pulled along, mostly due to the threat that House conservatives wouldn’t go along with much less.
Make no mistake about it. The new Republican members of Congress, the Tea Partiers, and the Republican Study Committee would not be responsible for a government shutdown. However, their ability to pursue a strategic approach to achieving the goal of a smaller, less intrusive government will be put to the test in the coming months. Will the conservative conference continue to be a strategic negotiating ally? Will Republicans avoid the brick wall, or run into it?
The strategic approach only works if two elements are present. First, the threat of large numbers of members voting “no” must be a real — and not just a perceived — threat. And second, negotiators must be willing to accept success as the outcome.
The debate over government spending has changed. Democrats are now offering spending cuts — mild cuts — but spending cuts nonetheless. The debate is over how much, rather than whether, to cut government spending. Yes, it is only in non-defense domestic discretionary spending. Yes, the real challenge is in entitlement spending. But be willing to accept success. Republicans can win this debate, both on policy and on politics.
We didn’t invent sex or shutdowns, but we can avoid the brick wall of a government stoppage.
Stuart Roy is a former senior Hill Leadership staffer and adviser to Republican members of both the House and Senate leadership. He is now a partner at the bipartisan consulting firm Prism Public Affairs.