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A government shutdown? Yes, please

By Jennifer Lawless, Special to CNN
  • Jennifer Lawless: Obama, Reid, Boehner naturally say they don't want shutdown
  • Still, by digging in, each could help their standing with their core constituencies, she says
  • Boehner can build credibility with Tea Party; Reid, Obama win back liberals
  • Lawless: Short-term gains from shutdown only defer dealing with tough issues coming up

Editor's note: Jennifer L. Lawless is associate professor of government at American University, where she is also the director of the Women & Politics Institute. She is co-author (with Richard L. Fox) of "It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office" (Cambridge University Press 2010). She ran in the 2006 Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives in Rhode Island's second congressional district

(CNN) -- No one wants a government shutdown. Or at least that's what the politicians say.

After Wednesday night's closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters that, despite "some honest differences" on how to determine spending cuts for the rest of the current fiscal year, "No one wants the government to shut down."

Twenty-four hours and two Oval Office meetings later, Obama acknowledged that "the machinery of the shutdown is necessarily starting to move." But he hoped that he would be able "to announce to the American people relatively early in the day that a shutdown has been averted."

Harry Reid's rhetoric echoed the president's sentiment. Summarizing the meetings with the president and the speaker, Reid characterized the issues dividing the Senate and House as "extremely narrow." He went on to note that he was "very, very hopeful" that a compromise would be struck by Friday's midnight deadline.

Latest news: Hill leaders blame each other

These statements certainly make political sense. With 800,000 federal workers preparing themselves for the worst, and the amount of spending at issue estimated at only a few billion dollars (a tiny proportion of the $3.5 trillion budget), it would be irresponsible for political leaders to articulate anything short of a preference to pass a budget.

Yet even a cursory glance at the policy debates underlying the budget impasse suggests that a short-term shutdown is probably in Boehner, Reid and Obama's political interests.

Consider the shutdown from John Boehner's perspective. Sure, there might be a price to pay if members of the military receive their pay only after the government is funded again.

But failing to compromise with the Democrats allows the speaker to placate the fiscally conservative members of the Tea Party caucus, without whom the Republicans would not have party control in the House of Representatives. Refusing to compromise also allows Boehner to throw a bone to the socially conservative Republican base. At issue, after all, are a series of riders related to family planning, abortion and environmental protection.

In fact, many of these provisions also shed light on why Harry Reid has little incentive to prevent a government shutdown. Certainly, creating a situation in which new unemployment and Social Security claims cannot be processed does not align with the Democrats' broad policy preferences. These consequences are likely worth enduring, however, when a shutdown allows the Democrats to bolster their credentials with their core constituents.

A government shutdown provides the Democrats an opportunity to stand up against Republicans' attempts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of many of its key regulatory powers, cut Planned Parenthood's funding and prevent the District of Columbia from using tax dollars to ensure that poor women have access to a full range of reproductive health options.

Barack Obama can use the shutdown to his advantage, too. All else equal, no president would choose to delay IRS processing of paper tax returns or refunds, close all national parks, cease issuing passports or keep the National Institutes of Health from starting new clinical trials.

But all else is not equal. The president's incentives not only align with those of the Senate Democrats, but he could also benefit from repairing ties with the left.

Holding his ground now might mitigate some of the fallout he suffered from compromises pertaining to Guantanamo Bay, the war in Afghanistan and jettisoning any chance of a public option in health care reform.

Moreover, with so much of the debate confined to the halls of Congress, Obama can also demonstrate his ability to stay above the fray. Telling congressional leaders that it is "time to act like grown-ups" and convening a series of meetings with Boehner and Reid to ensure that there is an adult in the room for the negotiations, the president can highlight the leadership style that won him the presidency in the first place.

The few billion dollars over which the Democrats and Republicans disagree might seem relatively trivial. But the policies associated with the spending levels in question are anything but incidental. At least in the short-term, a government shutdown offers an opportunity for all parties to take a principled stand that mollifies the base. And as long as the shutdown lasts only for a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks, the long-term political damage will likely be kept at bay.

Something that seems to have gotten lost in the discussions and strategic calculations of the key political players, however, is what the shutdown means for how we handle discussions over the 2012 budget. If we move forward with the shutdown now, then when the really tough fights occur in the coming months -- over entitlements, defense spending, whether to allow the Treasury to borrow money beyond the current $14 trillion debt limit -- another stoppage will be unlikely.

Shutting down the government on a regular basis is hardly a sustainable plan.

The trillion dollar decisions soon to come down the pike, however, will be no easier to solve than the disagreements we currently face. And the range of issues requiring debate, deliberation and compromise will include not only reproductive freedom and the environment, but also the role of government, the extent to which we should fund the military and the importance of the social safety net.

Boehner, Reid and Obama's short-term posturing, therefore, might ultimately constrain their long-term options for dealing with the more difficult discussions on the horizon. And it will likely be many more than 800,000 federal workers who pay the price.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Lawless.