GOP presidential candidates, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are batting around the idea of a federal government shutdown as a means to defund Planned Parenthood. If they succeed, it would be the 19th partial closure of federal agencies since 1976.
The shutdowns don't typically last long – the longest was 21 days in a stand-off between President Bill Clinton and a GOP-led Congress over a budget.
The most recent shutdown, which lasted 16 days, occurred in 2013, resulting in furloughs of 800,000 non-essential federal workers and the closure of national parks and memorials. Cruz was the ringleader of an effort to prevent passage of a spending resolution as leverage to defund parts of Obamacare.
Cruz has equated shutting down the federal government with carrying through on campaign promises to repeal Obamacare. He has blamed "establishment Republicans," including GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for undermining efforts to win conservative ideological victories.
Campaigning for President, Cruz has a new target – Planned Parenthood. The leverage this time is a resolution to raise the debt limit, which the Treasury Department says is needed sometime early this fall, perhaps as soon as a couple of weeks from now.
McConnell and GOP House Speaker John Boehner have repeatedly said the nation's credit shouldn't be put at risk over political battles. Boehner's stance contributes to festering disaffection in the right wing of his House Republican conference and could even lead to a challenge to his Speakership.
The build-up to the debt ceiling vote has been muted in part because of media attraction to the more raucous debate over the Iran nuclear deal. Just before the congressional deadline to act last week, the air went out of that debate when enough Democratic senators refused to end a filibuster. The House took votes, but they were most symbolic and largely overlooked.
General political wisdom indicates that forcing a government shutdown, regardless of the principle involved, isn't a winning electoral strategy. A new report issued this week shows why.
"Government Disservice,"produced by the Partnership for Public Service, suggests that shutting down the federal government – and threatening to shut it down – have become a way of life in Washington, DC.
"The negative effect on the ability of the agencies to fulfill their missions has often seemed to be of little concern to many lawmakers, some of whom are focused on the appropriations process to win specific policy battles or to control spending or reduce the federal budget deficit," the report concludes.
In addition to disrupting actual governmental services, shutdowns or threatened shutdowns demoralize federal employees, especially ones who live paycheck to paycheck and face financial stress when they aren't working. Some employees say they have become pawns in political chess games that waste taxpayer money planning for, carrying out and recovering from shutdowns.
The report's findings says congressional oversight of federal agencies is more focused on headlines, than improvements. The report calls for a biennial budget to "reduce the disruption that stems from dysfunctional budget and appropriations processes." On a more practical level, the report suggests members from both side of the political aisle get to know each other and spend time learning what federal agencies do and how the legislative process works.
Shutting government down over issues related to abortion is not new either. There was a 12-day shutdown in the fall of 1977 related to Medicaid abortion coverage, followed by a pair of 8-day shutdowns later in the same year dubbed Abortion Shutdown II and Abortion Shutdown III. There was an 11-day shutdown in the fall of 1979 that included a dispute over abortion funding.
More recent shutdowns have tended to center on spending priorities and deficit reduction. However in 1984, after a 2-day shutdown over quarrels involving crime fighting, civil rights and water projects, there was a 1-day continuation of the shutdown because the temporary measure Congress passed to end the shutdown didn't do the trick.