Framing the Debate on Spending

As the clock ticks closer to Friday’s deadline for an extension of the continuing resolution currently funding government operations, the 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 will happen if Congress cannot agree on spending levels for the current fiscal year will be 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 their 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, do polls like this one from Gallup 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 with liberals by accepting their use of terms.  What is needed is a way to frame the debate on spending in a way that more accurately reflects what will really happen on Friday at midnight if the government “shuts down.”

Republicans will lose the argument over a government “shutdown” every time so long as they go along in calling it a “shutdown.”  Republicans in the House leadership have bent over backwards recently to assure the public that a “shutdown” is not the goal of their pursuit of spending cuts.  That’s fighting a rear guard action.  If Republicans want to win the debate on spending, they have to go on offense and change the terms of the argument.

There have been seventeen government “shutdowns” since 1977.  This makes it hardly a novel event.  There is even a process for implementing one 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 will not actually shut down.  Only non-essential functions of government will cease for as long as it takes to for the parties to come to an agreement.  Essential services continue.  According to a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) the OMB defines essential services as:

—activities essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials;
—continuance of air traffic control and other transportation safety functions and the protection of transport property;
—border and coastal protection and surveillance;
—protection of federal lands, buildings, waterways, equipment and other property owned by the United States;
—care of prisoners and other persons in the custody of the United States;
—law enforcement and criminal investigations;
—emergency and disaster assistance;
—activities that ensure production of power and maintenance of the power distribution system;
—activities essential to the preservation of the essential elements of the money and banking system of the United States, including borrowing and tax collection activities of the Treasury; and
—activities necessary to maintain 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 choice as one between spending or 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 at midnight 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 be 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: the EPA; the Department of Education; HUD, an alphabet soup of federal boards and commissions; and the like. Arguing in this way would make it very difficult for Democrats and their media enablers to throw around the usual and odious charges that Republicans want to starve seniors, foul the air and water, and bring back the horse and buggy.

Proof that this framing works is seen in a Rasmussen Reports poll that found nearly 6 in 10 likely voters favor a “partial government shutdown” over funding the government at last year’s level.  Critics of the Rasmussen result attack the poll for the framing of the question, and hold up the Gallup poll’s result as the true measure of the public’s sentiment on the question.  Gallup’s question, however, does not accurately describe the issue, offering respondents a choice of a “government shutdown” – total – or budget compromise.

Republicans won the election 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.”  Pass it on.