The Shutdown Message

Larry Kudlow Senior Contributor, CNBC
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Nobody really likes government shutdowns, including me. But sometimes you have to make a point. Send a message. Show voters what you really believe. Take a stand.

With John Boehner set to resign at the end of October, many believe the outgoing speaker can team up with House Democrats to avoid a government shutdown on October 1. Ace Washington watcher Dan Clifton of Wall Street firm Strategis reports, “The risk of a government shutdown next week has been eliminated.” And he expects Congress to pass a short-term continuing resolution that will fund government appropriations through December 11.

That would be a clean bill that does not defund Planned Parenthood. More Democrats than Republicans would support it. And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell stands ready to pass a similar clean resolution.

But will this non-disruptive approach really work? Nancy Pelosi wants to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank. House Republicans do not. So far the House has not come up with a plan to finance the Highway Trust Fund. And then there’s the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood — because of the vile and depraved videos of the removal of fetal body parts — that weighs heavily on the national conscience. Is defunding really dead?

So a shutdown next week is still possible. Most of the Beltway media will blame Republicans. Democrats will blame Republicans. And GOP pundits will blame Republicans. Political death, they will say.


Former National Review reporter Andrew Stiles wrote a most interesting government-shutdown piece almost two years ago when Senator Ted Cruz and other Republicans filibustered to stop full funding of Obamacare. Stiles pointed out that the Cruz shutdown was the 18th shutdown since 1976. And he argued that Democrat Tip O’Neill presided over two-thirds of them.

In the late 1970s shutdowns occurred when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. The disagreement was over abortion policy. That caused three shutdowns.

Stiles noted that during the Reagan-O’Neill era, most of the shutdowns were budget focused. Reagan wanted less spending; the Democrats wanted more. They also bickered over funding for missile programs.

The Reagan-O’Neill-era shutdowns were short, and in most of them Reagan prevailed. Meanwhile, the Reagan recovery flourished, the Republicans held the Senate (until 1986), and the Gipper was reelected in a landslide in 1984.

Going back to the Obamacare-related shutdown of 2013, a bit more than a year later the Republicans swept the Senate and gained an even larger majority in the House.

I am not arguing for a constant series of budget shutdowns. And I will always oppose any expiration of the U.S. Treasury debt ceiling. That would be a harmful global economic event. No good. But it is worth remembering that there are no catastrophic political or economic consequences attached to these shutdowns.

Surely, shutdowns are a cumbersome way to make a point. But the GOP base is clamoring for a more aggressive Republican Congress. The grassroots are angry and frustrated that the Republican House and Senate have not passed a series of large-scale bills.

There’s been no repeal and rewrite of Obamacare. There’s been no corporate tax reform, at a minimum, or overall personal tax reform. There’s been no energy bill — not just to build the XL pipeline, but to end limits on oil and gas exports and drilling on federal lands.

Immigration reform is a hot topic on the presidential-debate scene. But there’s been nothing on this from Congress. And the huge issue is the Iran nuclear deal, which in addition to being unverifiable would give Iran $150 billion to kill more American soldiers and advance its domination of the Middle East. But the congressional GOP response has been weak and confusing.

And the fact that legislative hurdles — such as the filibuster, 60-vote rule in the Senate — prevents these reforms is unsatisfying to the GOP base.

Of course, the arrogant and ideologically stubborn President Obama would veto all these reforms if they ever got to his desk. But if I read the grassroots properly, they know this and believe these vetoes would set the stage for a big Republican victory in 2016.

Of course, a key point here is that you can’t govern form Congress alone. You need the White House. Expectations from last November’s sweep were always too high.

But perhaps Republican leadership in both Houses might think of this: There are too many deals and not enough principles, beliefs, and clear messaging.

The GOP ultimately will nominate a presidential candidate who will hopefully get the right message out. But in the meantime, as House Republicans choose a new top team and Majority Leader McConnell continues his term in the Senate, the congressional GOP leadership should think harder about principled messaging and less about accommodation.

If that requires a short-run shutdown, so be it.