There might be an upside to a government shutdown

CODA

GREG BEAN

A s this is being written, it looks like there could be a federal government shutdown as early as this Friday, March 4. Even if there’s a stopgap measure passed to give our representatives and senators more time to come to a meeting of the minds, it would likely only provide the government enough money to keep operating for two weeks.

And few think they’re going to come up with an acceptable compromise before those deadlines run out, because the sides are just too far apart. I think we got a good sense of how far apart they were when, early in the budget debates in the House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Arkansas, put forth an amendment to cut off the funding for President Obama’s Teleprompter. He pulled it when he couldn’t figure out how much that would actually save.

Still, the unruly freshman representatives and their GOP elders went after every other thing that sticks in their craws, including proposals to cut funding for repairs and alterations in the executive residence at the White House, funding for the Environmental ProtectionAgency, National Public Radio and more. Nearly everything the government spends money on felt the sting, until they came up with the $61.5 billion in cuts proposed in the budget bill the House sent over to the Senate for consideration — where Democrats in the majority basically said, “No freaking way!” There was noway the Senate would approve that bill, they said, which meant that when legislators came back to work last Monday, they only had five days to work something out, at least for the short term. Maybe they’ll have already done that by the time this sees print.

Over the long haul, it’s more prickly.

Republicans with longer memories remember what happened the last time a budget debate caused a shutdown in government back in 1995. They got blamed for it, and it cost themdearly in the next election. But the young Tea Party crowd — which even Republican Speaker John Boehner admits he can’t control — doesn’t have those same reservations, and are perfectly ready to shut things down for a while if they don’t get their way. In fact, some of them say they’d welcome a shutdown if that’s what it takes to make their point.

My prediction? From where I sit in the cheap seats? A shutdown of some duration is almost unavoidable. And because I’m a glasshalf full kind of a guy, I’m trying to convince myself that might not be a bad thing.

Sure, a shutdown would mean that national parks would close and most “nonessential” government offices and functions would suffer for a while (the Better Business Bureau says about half of the 2.1 million federal workers would have to stay home). But I’m not planning a visit to a national park anytime soon, and if government is closed down, at least it can’t do us any harm. Right? And golly, if the government is shut down past the extended tax deadline of April 18, will there be anybody at the Internal Revenue Service to notice, or care, if we just don’t file our returns on time or pay our taxes because we’re frankly sick of the whole whoop-de-do?

That’s just wishful thinking, obviously. No matter what else happens, the government will want to collect our tax money to pay for work they might not be doing. The IRS would stop answering its hotline and would probably delay refund payments, but it would continue processing tax returns.

Butwhat happens if it goes on long enough that our old grandmas and grandpas don’t get their Social Security checks on time? What happens if Medicare grinds to a halt? The smart money says neither of those things will happen, although both programs will likely stop taking new applications for the duration. Even so, it’s also likely that most of us will be affected at some level, and what happens when millions of Americans start feeling inconvenience and real pain because of a government shutdown?

Well, I think two things would happen. First, a budget compromise would be reached because theAmerican people would demand it (like they did last time). And second, more people might give some serious thought to what the fiscal debate we’ve

been having in sound bites and slogans for the last few years means in practical terms.

Millions ofAmericans pay lip service to the notion of smaller, more cost-effective government, but at the same time polls show us that most of those same people don’t want cuts in programs that are dear to them, or from which they benefit. And those changes simply have to bemade if we’re ever going to reduce or erase our nation’s deficit.

The fact is, however, that polarized politicians from either end of the spectrum can’t solve this problem. It’s too systemic. To solve it, we’re going to have to have a much calmer national discussion about where we want to go, and what we’re willing to give up to get there.

If a government shutdown is the wake-up call that helps start that introspective discussion, even to a small extent, I say bring it on.

Watching the Tea Partiers try to dodge the blame would just be gravy.

  

Speaking of Republicans, I’ve been reading everything I can about Newt Gingrich’s apparent run for president (which he might have announced by now) in 2012. I sincerely hope he runs, because it would make great theater. Here’s a guy with a whole lot of baggage who has been working hard to rehabilitate his image. But even though he converted to Catholicism a while back and is trying to come off as a wise elder statesman, people still remember his strong ties to the religious right. They remember his role in the last, wildly unpopular government shutdown. They remember his divorces (he told one ex-wife he was divorcing her when she was in the hospital being treated for cancer) and they remember his affairs. He says he thinks people will help him get past all that.

“People have to decide who I am,” he told TheNewYorkTimes.“AmIapersonthey want to trust to lead the country or not?”

I know what my answer would be. Watching him attempt to convince you otherwise would be highly entertaining.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.