It’s getting late in the game, and the American people are just days away from being without a fully functioning federal government. If a budget agreement is not reached, and a shutdown happens on March 4, many “non-essential” services will be halted.
Our armed forces, federal law enforcement personnel and air-traffic controllers will continue to do their duty, but hundreds of thousands of federal bureaucrats will be furloughed. Clerical functions such as processing Medicare claims and applications for Social Security and passports will cease. National parks, museums and historical sites will close.
But wait. It gets worse. There also could be no professional football next fall.
As President Obama and congressional Republicans and Democrats battle for home turf advantage in the Budget Bowl, the National Football League is locked in a Money Bowl of its own, pitting billionaire owners vs. millionaire players in a bitter pay dispute that could kill the 2011 season.
If players and team owners do not reach agreement by March 3 on a new collective bargaining pact, most football activity will freeze – no free agent signings, no trades, no spring training or community promotions and, ultimately, no NFL football next fall.
Think about it: Sundays without football, and no museums or national parks to visit to fill the empty time. All that might be left are marathon House and Senate proceedings on C-Span as lawmakers try to find a way out of the morass.
The last federal government shutdown came in late-December 1995. It dragged over the Christmas holidays and into early 1996.While that dispute also was over money, the debt and deficit situation was not as dire as now. Republicans, feeling frisky after taking control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, tried to force Democrats and President Clinton to swallow budget cuts much deeper than they were willing to accept. When Clinton vetoed the bill put on his desk, it set off a chain of events that resulted in a partial government shutdown.
Clinton, taking the side of the angels, and casting the GOP as the Grinch, saw his job-approval numbers climb. Mired in the upper 40s for most of 1995, his job approval registered at more than 50 percent for the first time in six months. When Republicans realized they were losing the public relations battle to Clinton, they capitulated.
When the fight ended, Clinton’s job approval stood at 52 percent, setting the stage for his own re-election. In fact, his job approval never slipped below 50 percent again in the remaining five years of his presidency. Not even Monica Lewinsky could bring it down.
Now, there is a tendency in politics to look at the last war and assume its lessons apply to the next one. Thus, the conventional wisdom, a serious Washington malady, says that Republicans who stick to their budget-cutting guns can only lose, and Obama and the Democrats can only win by opposing them.
The news media appear to be aiding the Democrats’ cause with a steady drumbeat of sob stories about people who will suffer if deep budget cuts proposed by Republicans are actually made. It’s tough to stand up under such pressure, and Obama cleverly plays to it.
"Are we willing to cut millions of young people off when it comes to student loans that help kids and families on their college education?” he plaintively asked in his news conference last week. “If we're cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?”
But a new Gallup Poll released Thursday suggests the general public, not Washington insiders, is much more discerning than that. While they prefer by a nearly 2-1 margin that both parties reach a compromise rather than shut down the government, the we’re-so-kind-and-sympathetic Democrats have not yet convinced a majority of Americans that the GOP is cruel and heartless.
Asked by Gallup who they think is doing a better job handling the budget situation, 42 percent say congressional Republicans, while 39 percent say Obama and the Democrats. And while much of this breaks down along party lines, 52 percent of swing-voting independents say Democrat budget cuts don’t go far enough.
That should give the White House pause. To be sure, 2011 is not 1995, not statistically and not in public mood. The unemployment rate at the time of the last shutdown was 5.6 percent, way below today’s 9 percent. Also, the budget deficit was under $200 billion. Compare that with 2011’s projected $1.5 trillion shortfall.
In other words, the public is feeling its own fiscal pain and understands spending at current levels can only lead to disaster.
As for the NFL, the prospect of watching C-Span instead of football games next fall might be a bitter pill. But the consequences of the nation’s fiscal collapse are much worse. The people know it and won’t be fooled.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown universities.