Articles

The GOP's Self-Defeating 'Defunding' Strategy

September 18, 2013

In 2010, Republicans took the House of Representatives by gaining 63 seats. They also picked up six U.S. senators and 675 state legislators, giving them control of more legislative chambers than any time since 1928. The GOP also won 25 of 40 gubernatorial races in 2009 and 2010.

These epic gains happened primarily because independents voted Republican. In 2010, 56% of independents voted for GOP congressional candidates, up from 43% in 2008 and 39% in 2006.

Today, independents look more like Republicans than Democrats, especially when it comes to health care. In a new Crossroads GPS health-care policy survey conducted in 10 states likely to have competitive Senate races and in House districts that lean Republican or are swing seats, 60% of independents oppose President Obama's Affordable Care Act. If this holds through 2014, then Republicans should receive another big boost in the midterms.

There is, however, one issue on which independents disagree with Republicans: using the threat of a government shutdown to defund ObamaCare. By 58% to 30% in the GPS poll, they oppose defunding ObamaCare if that risks even a temporary shutdown.

This may be because it is (understandably) hard to see the endgame of the defund strategy. House Republicans could pass a bill that funds the government while killing all ObamaCare spending. But the Democratic Senate could just amend the measure to restore funding and send it back to the House. What then? Even the defund strategy's authors say they don't want a government shutdown. But their approach means we'll get one.

After all, avoiding a shutdown would require, first, at least five Senate Democrats voting to defund ObamaCare. But not a single Senate Democrat says he'll do that, and there is no prospect of winning one over.

Second, assuming enough Senate Democrats materialize to defund ObamaCare, the measure faces a presidential veto. Republicans would need 54 House Democrats and 21 Senate Democrats to vote to override the president's veto. No sentient being believes that will happen.

So what would the public reaction be to a shutdown? Some observers point to the 1995 shutdown, saying the GOP didn't suffer much in the 1996 election. They are partially correct: Republicans did pick up two Senate seats in 1996. But the GOP also lost three House seats, seven of the 11 gubernatorial races that year, a net of 53 state legislative seats and the White House.

A shutdown now would have much worse fallout than the one in 1995. Back then, seven of the government's 13 appropriations bills had been signed into law, including the two that funded the military. So most of the government was untouched by the shutdown. Many of the unfunded agencies kept operating at a reduced level for the shutdown's three weeks by using funds from past fiscal years.

But this time, no appropriations bills have been signed into law, so no discretionary spending is in place for any part of the federal government. Washington won't be able to pay military families or any other federal employee. While conscientious FBI and Border Patrol agents, prison guards, air-traffic controllers and other federal employees may keep showing up for work, they won't get paychecks, just IOUs.

The only agencies allowed to operate with unsalaried employees will be those that meet one or more of the following legal tests: They must be responding to "imminent" emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, be funded by mandatory spending (such as Social Security), have funds from prior fiscal years that have already been obligated, or rely on the constitutional power of the president. Figuring out which agencies meet these tests will be tough, but much of the federal government will lack legal authority to function.

But won't voters be swayed by the arguments for defunding? The GPS poll tested the key arguments put forward by advocates of defunding and Mr. Obama's response. Independents went with Mr. Obama's counterpunch 57% to 35%. Voters in Senate battleground states sided with him 59% to 33%. In lean-Republican congressional districts and in swing congressional districts, Mr. Obama won by 56% to 39% and 58% to 33%, respectively. On the other hand, independents support by 51% to 42% delaying ObamaCare's mandate that individuals buy coverage or pay a fine.

The desire to strike at ObamaCare is praiseworthy. But any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively.

The defunding strategy doesn't. Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.

A version of this article appeared September 19, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The GOP's Self-Defeating 'Defunding' Strategy and online at WSJ.com.

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