Several conservative House and Senate Members, dissatisfied both with the spending cuts enacted so far and with repeated short-term appropriations negotiations, are threatening to oppose another Continuing Resolution.  I think that’s a mistake.

Conservatives are expressing two concerns – spending cuts are not being enacted quickly enough, and short-term CRs lack funding limitations (e.g., No federal funds may be appropriated for

[National Public Radio, implementing ObamaCare or new EPA regulations, Planned Parenthood].)

I support cutting spending even more deeply than the original House-passed bill.  I support and place a high priority on stopping implementation of ObamaCare and the new EPA regulatory authorities.  Yet I think this move is a short-sighted and even counterproductive tactical blunder.

Legislating is a team sport.  You win when you can build a coalition to achieve your goals.  Right now, the spending cut team is winning.  Anyone who wants to change strategy or torpedo it through individual action should step up and explain not just their own threatened no vote, but how that threat will lead to a better policy outcome.

From where I sit the current negotiating environment looks like this:

  • Moderate and Appropriator Republicans are generally staying quiet, allowing fiscal conservatives to shape a unified Republican negotiating position.
  • Congressional Democrats are divided and in disarray.
  • White House party leadership is weak.  The Presidential bully pulpit is largely inactive on this issue as the President tries to keep himself “above the fray.”
  • Team Obama and Congressional Democrats appear to be more afraid of a short-term shutdown than are Republicans.  This gives Republican leaders leverage in the repeated short-term negotiations.
  • House Republicans write the language for each Continuing Resolution and thereby control the choice presented to the Senate.
  • Senate Republicans, led by Leader McConnell, have so far supported the House position.  This forces Senate Democrats and the White House to choose between the House-passed bill and a shutdown.  This Boehner-McConnell teamwork creates enormous leverage for fiscal conservatives.
  • In addition to repeated short-term CR negotiations, there are at least two more opportunities to pursue additional spending cuts this year, on an upcoming debt limit extension and this fall during the FY12 appropriations negotiations.  Twelve individual appropriations bills also provide countless opportunities for funding limitations on bad policies.
  • Public opinion seems to support Republican efforts to cut spending without shutting down the government.
  • Tragic ongoing events in Japan and Libya have pushed this spending battle low on the public radar.

This is pretty much the ideal environment in which to incrementally cut spending.  The repeated-short-term-CR strategy is working to enact $2 B of savings per week.  The strategy is not, however, resulting in any funding limitations on hot button Administration policies.

Let’s assume you’re a conservative Member who wants to do even more.  You either want deeper cuts, or to enact them all now, or to enact a funding limitation rider.  You threaten to oppose the next CR.  Is your threat principled or strategic?

A principled position sounds like this: “I cannot in good conscience support a bill that [spends this much / funds bad program X.]”  A strategic position sounds like this: “I hope that my no vote means no CR will pass.  The resulting government shutdown will strengthen the hands of spending cutters in the longer-term negotiations.”

The principled argument sounds great to outside allies.  But if it is not paired with a viable strategy, it is individually rewarding but likely to be counterproductive.  Is it a good outcome if your principled no vote leads to a legislative result that spends more?  You’ll feel better for having voted no, but the Nation will be worse off.  If you don’t like your team’s strategy, try to change it.

If your vote is strategic, then please explain how you expect to win a public shutdown fight, and how that public battle will strengthen your leaders’ hand in negotiations with Leader Reid and Team Obama.  Does your strategy rely on Republican message unity during the shutdown, or is it OK if now-unified Republicans split?  Should a shutdown be accompanied by a public message of “We regret that Democratic refusal to cut spending has forced the government to shut down,” or instead “We shut down the government and it’s not that bad?”

Conservative Members who simply say what they individually won’t do (vote for the next CR), should explain what they want their party leaders to do in response.  As an outside supporter of deep spending cuts, I care less about your individual vote than I do about the policy outcome.  How will your threatened no vote lead to less government spending than the current strategy?

It is possible to develop such a strategy, but I think it’s quite difficult to make a convincing case that such a new strategy is likely to lead to a better outcome than the incremental path now being followed.  If I’m wrong, then let’s hear it.  Propose the alternate strategy and explain how it can succeed.  My objection is not to a bad strategy, but to the apparent absence of any strategy.

Instead of threatening to oppose the next CR no matter what, impatient fiscal conservatives should demand that their party leaders ratchet up the the spending cuts in the next CR.  Spending cuttters, pull the Republican team in your direction.  Demand $3B of spending cuts per week rather than $2B.  If policy-specific funding limitations are a priority, choose one funding limitation and insist that it be included in the next CR.  (I’d choose the EPA regs, which tend to unify Republicans and split Democrats.)  Use House Republican control of the legislative text to put the President and Leader Reid in the position where they have to choose between a little more savings and shutting down the government.  It’s hard for them to explain why $2B of savings per week is OK, but $3B per week is the end of the world.  Use that to your advantage.

For decades those who favor bigger government have succeeded incrementally, by patiently layering one new program on top of another, and by pocketing incremental spending increases that build up over time.  Over the next six months spending cutters are now perfectly positioned to do this in reverse.

When you’re making steady progress toward your goal by repeating the same tactical move, when your opponents have not yet figured out how to counter that move, and when you don’t have a complete and viable alternative strategy, don’t change tactics.  Just ratchet up your demands a little.

(photo credit: thirtyfootscrew)