Imagine what would happen if liberal Democrats ginned up a government shutdown that wound up costing taxpayers a few billion dollars. Republicans would swiftly condemn the liberals for fiscal recklessness, for picking the pockets of hard-working Americans.
Yet today, as we careen toward a shutdown ginned up by the GOP’s “my way or the highway” tea partyers, there’s nary a peep from that cadre about the real-life consequences of crashing the government. The cadre is either clueless or in denial. The reality is that a government shutdown costs money, and the taxpayer gets the tab.
How quintissentially ironic, since the tea partyers purport to be the friend of the taxpayer.
Consider what happened in the mid-90s. Newt Gingrich and his fellow conservatives ginned up a two-phase government shutdown that lasted roughly a month. When it was, fiscal experts toted up the costs; according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, that taxpayer tab was $1.4 billion – which, in today’s money, is $2 billion. And some independent analysts think that actual tab is much higher.
A government shutdown – even the looming threat of a shutdown – costs a lot of money. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. For starters, federal workers have to halt their real work just to prepare for the various doomsday contingencies. As budget expert Stan Collender reportedly points out, “You have to pull people off whatever they’re doing to inform employees about what they can do and when they can come in. You have to prepare to change the Web sites with new information about what to do during the shutdowns. You have additional security costs for the buildings because you have to lock them up so no one can get in. You have additional maintenance costs in terms of heating and cooling.”
The irony, says Collender, is that “Republicans who are so big on uncertainty and government efficiency would never think it’s prudent to ask a business to operate the way they’re asking government to operate. Can you imagine a business telling employees, ‘We might shut down, and keep an eye out for an e-mail telling you whether to report next week’?”
Irony is the polite word. Hypocrisy is probably more accurate.
So you have all those doomsday contingency costs. Plus, you have ticked-off government contractors who suddenly aren’t getting paid, and who eventually charge the government extra premium fees to compensate for all the lost work. Plus, you have to tally all the lost federal revenue that would’ve been collected if not for the shutdown; in 1995-6, the national parks lost hundreds of millions of dollars a day. And so on.
It’s no surprise that tea-party Republicans seem blind to these realities, that they’re potentially hurting the taxpayers they purport to represent. Blindness is a symptom of rigid, uncompromising ideology. As Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, warns in a column today, “In the process, the GOP is made to look unserious and incapable of governing…We are seeing that an anti-compromise ideology can make for bad politics…A tea-party shutdown strategy – if implemented – would make securing the (Senate) and the presidency less likely for Republicans.”
Roy Meyers, a University of Maryland political scientist who has toted up the costs of the ’95-’96 shutdown, and who thinks the $1.4 billion taxpayer tab is too low, rightly points out: “The broader political impact of the shutdown was that it stopped the ‘Republican revolution in its tracks.'” And that was at a time when the revolution was riding high. Imagine the political impact in 2013, in the aftermath of an election when Republicans lost the presidency by more than five million votes, lost the nationwide House tally by more than one million votes, and lost the nationwide Senate tally by more than 10 million votes.
I’m reminded of a scene in the classic Citizen Kane. The blindly hubristic Charles Foster Kane refuses to change his ways, even when he’s duly warned by a political foe: “You’re the greatest fool I’ve ever known, Kane. If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”
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