President Obama's Best Move is to Force a Government Shutdown

Sep 30, 2013Bo Cutter

Bo Cutter witnessed the government shutdown of the mid-'90s firsthand as part of the Clinton budget team, and he argues that it's time to let it happen all over again.

This brief commentary is my first for a while. It's intended for President Obama's administration. The message is straightforward: accept the tooth fairy into your midst; welcome the gift that keeps on giving (a.k.a. the Republican House); do not seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Force a government shutdown.

Very few presidents have ever been as lucky in their opponents as President Obama. Now is the perfect moment to leverage that luck and avoid a much harder fight (the debt ceiling) in a couple of weeks. It is the case that all political disputes have to end in negotiation, but when you can choose the terrain and terms for the negotiation, it is folly to pass up the chance.

We are deluged with news about the situation, so I won't belabor the back story. The House has passed a continuing resolution funding the government and defunding ObamaCare (I don't have a problem with the right's name). The Senate will pass a resolution funding the government and taking out the de-funding provision. This resolution will go back to the House, where Speaker Boehner will have to make a decision.

So what should the president do? I argue that now is the time to jam the House. The president ought to make it very clear that he would not regard it as a tragedy if the Senate sent its resolution back to the House at about 5 p.m. today. The Speaker had plenty of time this weekend to decide what he wants to do and could get something done by midnight if he acts. But the extremists in the House won't let the Speaker act sensibly, and they ought to be given the chance to pay a price.

What will happen? The government will begin to shut down. A lot of good, hard-working civil servants will be sent home. Travel will mostly stop, and programs will grind to a halt. Parks will close; bills won't be paid; decisions will be unmade and will pile up. Really essential activities won't stop. It will all be a mess, an enormous inconvenience, a vast waste of money. But it won’t be a catastrophe.

And the Congress - particularly the House, which already has approval levels somewhat less than my shoe size - will be blamed. It will then have to act very quickly, and it will turn around and fund the government with a plain vanilla resolution. More importantly, having made clear its disregard for the wellbeing of ordinary Americans, the House will be standing on very thin ice when it threatens to force default over the debt limit on precisely the same grounds, defunding ObamaCare.

I know that doing all this requires the administration do some things that - to put it gently - have not been their strong suits: thinking strategically, recognizing opportunities, understanding risk, and bargaining at least as well as a good used car salesman. But this all happened before with President Clinton in 1995; it came out pretty well for him then, and the opposition to President Obama today is nowhere near as good as Newt Gingrich was then.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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